Measles outbreaks preventable, experts say

While the CDC declared measles eliminated in the U.S. in the year 2000 thanks to increased vaccination rates,  recent outbreaks of measles have been hitting the country once again. In the Northwest region of the U.S., states like Washington and Oregon have reported a combined 69 cases of measles since the beginning of the year, according to the Washington State Department of Health and Oregon Health Authority; on the east coast, New York City has reported 90 confirmed cases of measles, according to the New York State Department of Public Health and Mental Hygiene. Because measles is eliminated in the U.S., the disease has to be brought into the country by travelers for an outbreak to occur. Such is the case in New York City, where officials say the outbreak began with an unvaccinated child picking up the disease on a trip to Israel, where another outbreak is already underway. 

So far, the closest the disease has gotten to Chicago is two individuals at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose cases were confirmed by the university earlier this month.

In order to fight the disease, health officials strongly encourage parents to have their children get the measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR vaccine. The CDC recommends two doses, once at 12 to 15 months and once from four to six years of age. 

At DePaul, students are required to submit documentation showing they’ve received the vaccine in order to attend the university and enroll in classes. Public schools in Illinois allow families to cite medical and religious exemptions, allowing children to attend school unvaccinated. 

Melaney Arnold, an information officer with the Illinois Department of Public Health, said that the more people vaccinated within a population, the less likely measles outbreaks are to occur.

Dr. Craig Klugman, a professor in health sciences at DePaul, agreed. 

“In order to avoid a measles outbreak, 93 to 95 percent of the population must be vaccinated,” he said. “In Illinois, 91.9 percent of people are vaccinated and in Chicago, 94 percent of people are vaccinated.” 

He added that in Washington state, just 88.5 percent of the population is vaccinated.

Klugman also emphasized that vaccinating a local population as much as possible protects not only unvaccinated travelers, but also vulnerable people within the population who cannot be vaccinated for legitimate medical reasons. “We can require people demonstrate they have been vaccinated before entering large public spaces [such as] schools, arenas, entertainment parks and anywhere that large numbers of people gather,” he said.

While Illinois only has two exemptions for vaccines, 17 other states have a third “philosophical” or “personal belief” exemption. This means that parents, and in some states children over 12, are not required to be vaccinated in order to go to school. 

Washington and Oregon are two of the states that allow philosophical exemptions.

Among the reasons parents may not want to vaccinate their kids is their consumption of anti-vaccine propaganda. In 1998, British doctor Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the medical journal The Lancet that described eight children who had supposedly shown signs of autism after receiving the MMR vaccination. 

After significant scientific scrutiny and the inability of subsequent studies to reproduce similar results, The Lancet retracted the paper, and Wakefield’s medical license was revoked in 2010. Despite this, some continue to believe that vaccines cause harm, among them a number of celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy. 

 According to a 2017 survey by Pew Research, 73 percent  of U.S. adults “believe that medical scientists should have a major role in policy decisions related to childhood vaccines.” The same survey reported that 82 percent of Americans believe healthy people should receive the MMR vaccine in order to remove public health risks.

“We [have] reach[ed] a point in society in which we end up believing more the opinion of an influencer than actual science, research and data,” said DePaul sophomore Jessica Camacho, who is majoring in health sciences. 

 She added that instead of looking at the benefits of vaccines, people too often trust individuals who themselves are not armed with accurate information.

And while measles outbreaks have been making headlines, Klugman said there are real consequences when people don’t get vaccinated against other preventable diseases too. “More than 80,000 people died of the flu last year,” he said. “While the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, it does help prevent the disease in many and slows down its spread dramatically.”

He cautioned that other vaccine-preventable diseases might re-appear because of low vaccination rates, including whooping cough and mumps.

Washington state is now looking to remove the philosophical exemption with House Bill 1638, according to the Seattle Times. The bill passed the Health and Wellness Committee on Feb. 15 and is also expected to pass the House Rules Committee, at which point it will be voted on by the full House chamber.