A Guide to the Measles Outbreak and How to Keep Your Kids Safe

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Politicians around the United States have been going to bat over the recent measles outbreak and what should be done about it. At the same time, parents have voiced concerns about the safety of their children and their right to protect and decide the health of their kids. Let’s take a quick look at how the political, scientific, social, and safety issues surrounding this latest outbreak unpack, explaining why the the issue has ballooned to the size it is now.

What scientific backing do anti-vaxxers have? Why has an outbreak occurred? What’s important to understand about the science behind the issue?

Some parents across certain states and regions have been choosing not to vaccinate their children against certain diseases, including the measles. The way vaccinations work on the individual level is by introducing a weak strain of a disease into the human body so that your immune system produces appropriate antibodies to prevent future infection from dangerous versions of the disease. But vaccinations work on a communal level as well — and this is where things get tricky. Herd immunity is a term used to describe the way that non-immunized individuals in a population can be protected by the immunity of others.

As the population of susceptible individuals thins, a disease like measles will die out, because there are too few individuals getting ill and able to pass the disease, or have the disease passed on to them. As a result, the disease cannot properly spread through a community. As long as the susceptible (non-vaccinated) individuals remain at a minimum, the fact that surrounding community members cannot get the disease protects those few. But as more and more people do not vaccinate, herd immunity begins to disappear, and disease re-emerge in the population. Brookings has a nice diagram explaining the concept here.

So why don’t people vaccinate? There are a number of reasons people don’t vaccinate their children. Some reasons are religiously motivated. Others don’t trust newer versions of certain vaccines, or doubt the necessity of other vaccines. For example, the flu vaccine is something of a gamble — albeit an educated, closely watched, and carefully studied gamble. Basically doctors and researchers are guessing which strain of the flu is likely to be spread in the coming year, and if they guess incorrectly, you’ll likely get the flu anyhow. This happened recently; scientists can’t always be right. Some vaccines are not necessary for all individuals, for example the shingles vaccine and others are better saved for particularly vulnerable people, or those who work in proximity to people with compromised immune systems.

However, there have been some misleading and scientifically unfounded reasons given for choosing not to vaccinate children against diseases that do not fall into those categories — diseases that are still very dangerous, that have vaccines which have been tested for years, and that have every scientific justification for being recommended by doctors everywhere. Some are concerned that these vaccinations might cause developmental disorders and defects in children, such as autism.

This suggestion has been shown to have no scientific merit, but has spread as a quasi-scientific hysteria via advice from non-medical icons and anecdotal examples. As a result, parents have chosen not to vaccinate out of fear, but the result has been the return of diseases that there are no legitimate reason not to protect against. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, America has had a record number of measles; in total, 644 cases across 27 states in 2014.

Screen Shot 2015-02-06 at 1.08.58 PMAnd 2015 has been hit particularly hard, especially in Day Care centers and among children. Between only January 1 and January 30 of this year there have been 102 cases across 15 states, according to the CDC. That’s more in one month than in the entire year of 2012, as shown in the CDC’s graph above.

What’s the political controversy behind the recent outbreak?

Some argue that for the safety of all, the federal government should require vaccinations. They argue that for a population to be protected, it must have widespread and consistent vaccinations against diseases like measles to eliminate the presence of the illness and prevent it from re-emerging. If parents are choosing not to vaccinate and relying on herd immunity in large enough numbers, no one will be safe, and thus it should be governmentally regulated.

But if you vaccinated your family, you’re safe, right? Why involve yourself in what happens to those who are willing to risk the disease re-emerging by choosing not to vaccinate?

Well, for one thing, we care what happens to people who engage in other dangerous behavior, even if they themselves don’t care. It’s why we have laws against dangerous activities, drugs, certain fire-arm provisions, and so on. But more importantly, just because an individual vaccinates their child does not mean their child won’t get the measles. Why? Vaccines are highly effective, but they’re not equally effective for everyone, and they don’t last the same amount of time for everyone. Some individuals react differently to vaccinations and don’t end up with full immunity. These people are put at risk when a disease re-emerges because others don’t vaccinate. There are also delays in when people can get vaccinated, not until 10 months, meaning young infants and babies are in danger during a vulnerable time.

Republicans argue against over-regulation, arguing that it is not the place of the government to instruct parents on how to protect their children. This is complicated by some background positions. For one, Republicans have a history of being against federal involvement in health care — particularly in the case of Obamacare — and this offers another chance to emphasize that position. Small government and personal liberties are an important message for many on the right. However, some have made the mistake of indelicately bringing up the fear-mongering dangers of vaccination, a dangerous and astoundingly ignorant mistake which has led to some very harsh criticisms. On the other hand, Democrats argue that given the GOP’s preference to be very involved in protecting citizens from themselves during the Ebola scare — particularly in New York and New Jersey — this is hypocritical. There are nuances to that argument that some Democrats fail to address, but putting that aside for the moment, these are the shapes both arguments have taken.

How can you keep your kids safe? What’s being done to prevent spread?

This is perhaps the most important and useful part to be aware of for parents watching the news with concern. First of all, vaccinate your children with the combination vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella. Beyond that, there are a few things to know. First of all, people are contagious with the measles days before they show symptoms, meaning even if parents keep kids home once they’ve fallen ill, the damage is done.

Some Day Care groups — specifically KinderCare, which was at the center of the recent outbreak — are changing their policy so that all staff members must be vaccinated. The policy change would also prevent unvaccinated adults from entering rooms with susceptible infants and those unable to be vaccinated. Private companies that choose this sort of policy are safer than others, but access to those care facilitates isn’t possible for all parents, nor does it extend to school options. The best bet is to keep up with vaccinations and try to prevent spread. It’s also possible to examine your vaccinated child’s immunity level.

Measles is spread into the air by coughing, talking, and so on, and through bodily fluids. So hand washing and mouth covering are musts, and obviously keeping children home from school and day care when they’re not feeling well to prevent spread of disease to others.

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS

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