Seventy-five days and nearly $1 million later, the Oregon-Washington measles outbreak is over. But thanks to growing opposition to vaccinations, it's unlikely to be the last.
The outbreak, which sickened 77 people, prompted a public health emergency declaration in Washington and prompted the Oregon Legislature to consider a bill that would eliminate all exemptions to vaccinations for school-age children, except for medical reasons. That's because the re-emergence of the disease is scary.
Measles is highly contagious and spreads through the air, lingering for up to two hours in an enclosed area. In fact, it's so contagious, nine out of 10 unvaccinated people who are exposed to the virus will contract it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But thanks to a highly effective measles vaccine that was introduced in the 1960s and a strong vaccination program, the measles were officially wiped out in the U.S. by 2000. Before that time, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year, according to the CDC.
But measles is much more than a fast-spreading disease — it's dangerous.
There's this understanding that even if you get measles, it isn't a big deal. And fortunately, for most people, that's true. But the problem with that philosophy is that for some, the disease is deadly.
"Three in 1,000 kids who get the measles will die," said Allison Bartlett of the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital. "The odds are in your favor, but if everyone is vaccinated, 0 out of 1,000 kids will die."
That's the group of people who needs everyone to get vaccinated the most. Vaccines aren't perfect, but they work much better when more people are immunized. The concept is called "herd immunity," and it's how modern science has been able to combat a number of dangerous diseases.
The concept works because once enough people are immunized, outbreaks become significantly less likely. Once a person is vaccinated, the possibility that the virus can spread to another person who is also immunized is greatly reduced, meaning the virus doesn't have free reign to sweep through communities. If fewer people are immunized, outbreaks are more common and more people can get sick.
The greatest aspect of herd immunity is that it protects those who can't get immunized, whether the person is too young to get a shot or is allergic to the vaccine.
Which is what's most concerning about this recent outbreak. Because of a small, but a determined, group of parents who — incorrectly — believe vaccines cause autism and other medical issues, more people are choosing not to vaccinate their children.
The sudden distrust in longstanding science is happening nationwide, but it's also happening in our own county. Just last year, Douglas County officials said they have seen an increase in the number of parents who have declined to vaccinate their kids.
"The number of kids that can't get a vaccination because of medical reasons, has continued to drop and is now very, very low ... less than one-in-a-thousand," Douglas Public Health Network Director Bob Dannenhoffer told The News-Review last year. "All of the vaccinations that kids haven't gotten (in Douglas County) have been from parental choice."
Which seems to be the case up north, too. Of the people who were sickened in the Vancouver area, nearly all were under the age of 18 and completely unvaccinated, according to The Oregonian.
Maybe measles, for whatever reason, isn't concerning enough (again, it should be) to convince that group or parents to vaccinate their children. But vaccines are also credited with wiping out smallpox, and they are well on their way to eradicating polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, hepatitis B and neonatal tetanus as well — diseases that are responsible for killing millions of people each year.
Putting that progress at risk because of a surge of misinformation, nearly as contagious as the diseases themselves, simply can't be allowed. Which is why Oregon legislators are debating whether students should be excused from vaccinations due to their family's beliefs.
HB 3063, if it becomes law, Oregon would effectively end religious and philosophical exemptions beginning August 2020, joining just a handful of states that only allow for medical exemptions.
Under the law, if parents choose to forgo any or all immunizations for nonmedical reasons, their children would be barred from public or private schools. Instead, the children could attend online courses or be homeschooled.
Critics of the bill, including Rep. Gary Leif, R-Roseburg, say the bill is an example of government overreach and infringes on individual freedoms. But unvaccinated individuals not only endanger themselves, they pose a risk to entire communities. They threaten those with weak immune systems and those who have legitimate medical conditions and aren't able to protect themselves through the proven vaccination schedule. A bill that reduces the number of opportunities to skip out on improving the community's health is fundamentally good.
Perhaps we're too far removed from the death and disability caused by these horrific childhood diseases. Perhaps we've forgotten the anguish. Neither, however, are good reasons to allow such insidious infections to return.
-- The (Roseburg) News-Review