| Valerie Hamilton |
LOS ANGELES (dpa) – As the worst measles outbreak in the US in 20 years continues to spread, public debate is growing over parents’ right to refuse to vaccinate their children and the problems that can create for public health.
At least 102 people became sick with measles in January in the United States, according to the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, with at least 67 cases linked to one patient in December at California’s Disneyland.
The disease has spread to 14 states as infection spreads among people who have not been vaccinated against measles, including thousands of children whose parents object to vaccines.
Most schools in the United States require children to be vaccinated, unless there is a medical reason they can’t be. But 48 states allow exemptions based on religious beliefs, and 20 allow for “philosophical or moral” exceptions, according to data compiled by Emory University.
In the 2013-14 school year, the CDC reported tens of thousands of children had exemptions to attend school without all the required vaccinations, including more than 18,000 in California, where the current measles outbreak began.
Dr James Cherry, distinguished research professor of paediatrics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, told dpa that the drop in immunisation rates is responsible for the outbreak.
As a rule of thumb, when more than 95 per cent of people are immunised against measles, the population is protected, he said.
But as more children go without immunisations, “there’s probably more than 10 per cent of the childhood population that is not adequately immunised,” he said.
While there are many reasons parents can refuse to immunise their children, the one drawing the most public attention is a long-debunked theory popularised by American TV host Jenny McCarthy linking the combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) to cases of childhood autism.
In the past, vaccine scepticism found fertile ground on both ends of the US political spectrum – among people suspicious of either government or Big Pharma, or families seeking to rely on either prayer or nature.
But the discussion has been picked up by politicians eager to court right-wing or libertarian-leaning voters sceptical of government authority.
US Senator Rand Paul, a practicing eye doctor, drew fire from public health advocates after he told CNBC he believed vaccines should be voluntary, citing “tragic cases” of children mentally disabled by vaccines.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a presumptive candidate for the 2016 Republican president nomination, told media that “parents need to have some measure of choice” about vaccines.
After criticism from public health advocates, Christie and Paul both backpedalled, issuing public statements that said they had vaccinated their children, Fox News reported. On Tuesday, Paul posted a picture of himself receiving a booster shot for Hepatitis A on his Twitter feed.
The White House has stopped short of calling for federal vaccine mandates or an end to exemptions but urged parents to use “common sense” and vaccinate children.
“Parents across the country have a responsibility to get their kids vaccinated against the measles,” the White House said Tuesday. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The science and the expert guidance that we get from our public health professionals is crystal clear.”
Measles is rare in the US, but common in Asia. An outbreak in the Philippines affected 50,000 people last year, according to the CDC.
The disease can pose a serious danger to babies too young for the vaccine, which is administered at 12 months old, or to children who can’t be vaccinated because of compromised immune systems.
“Especially in Western Europe and Germany, people think of it as a childhood disease, but one in 500 will die,” Cherry said.
In babies, measles can lead to encephalitis, a serious and often fatal inflammation of the brain. The disease is highly contagious due to the resilience of the virus outside the body. Measles virus can remain infectious in the air for as long as two hours after a sneeze.
Measles is far more common in Europe than in the US, largely due to lower vaccination rates. In 2009, just 69 per cent of German children had received the vital second dose of the measles vaccine, according to the Robert Koch Institute.