By the time it begins---with fever, rash, runny nose, watery eyes, coughing, earache and diarrhea---it’s too late. The virus has been incubating for a week or more. White spots that appear in the mouth are only confirmation. It’s measles. For the next 10 to 14 days there is little comfort for its victim. But there is one consolation for potential future victims: Measles is preventable.
Currently, measles---which had been eradicated in the U.S.---has made a resurgence in at least ten U.S. states. (Colorado has reported only one case of measles this year.) But it’s the Pacific Northwest where it’s most severe. Washington’s governor has declared a state of emergency because of this outbreak. Oregon’s situation is only slightly less impactful.
One cause of the outbreak is simply because the Northwest is often the first stop for travelers arriving from Asia where annual outbreaks as well as lower vaccination rates for the illness are predictable. But there is also another factor that has caused the most recent spike.
The Centers for Disease Control attributes this outbreak to parents’ decisions to skip vaccinations. There are a lot of reasons for making this choice, but most often, said the CDC, it’s based on bad information. A lot of people still link the measles vaccine---MMR---to autism despite studies that have disproven this belief.
The CDC and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment warn that measles is not and should not be thought of as a simple childhood illness. “Measles can be serious for children,” said Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado communicable disease epidemiologist. “It can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis, and death.” Encephalitis can cause deafness or intellectual disability.
Despite the overwhelming number of vaccinated children---in Colorado, 88.7 percent of kindergartners are vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella--- more than a tenth of this population is not inoculated against these illnesses. The higher percentage that is vaccinated, believe health officials, the safer the majority are. This is called ‘herd immunity,’ where the largest portion of a group or population provides a degree of protection for those not vaccinated or who have not developed immunity.
Washington’s Clark County, where the most serious measles outbreak has occurred and where a health disaster declaration remains in effect, has the nation’s highest percentage of children under age ten who are not vaccinated. The state health department estimates that one in four students have received no immunizations at all. The country’s second highest measles outbreak is Portland, Oregon, just nine miles away. The choice not to immunize is left to each parent or guardian.
In Colorado, the law mandates that students attending public schools and licensed child care centers must be vaccinated against certain diseases unless they have a medical or non-medical exemption on file. To protect unvaccinated children, the state will allow exemptions from one or more required vaccines for a child to be kept out of school or child care facility during the disease outbreak.
Most states, including Colorado, allow exemptions for both religious and philosophical reasons. Those opposing vaccinations for philosophical reasons, often referred to as anti-vaxxers, believe illnesses like measles are natural. For anti-vaxxer, Denverite Mary Hendrick, immunization is not so simple. “As a child of the 50’s or 60’s,” she asks, “did you get measles, mumps and chickenpox, like all of us kids did?” Hendricks not only chalks up measles as “a rite of passage,” but believes the push for vaccinations is something that goes much deeper.
Hendrick ascribes the government’s push for vaccinations to an unspoken partnership with big pharmaceutical companies. She, like millions of anti-vaxxers, also sincerely believes that there are ingredients in vaccinations that cause other problems. One popular---but genuinely held---belief among anti-vaxxers was that the mercury in the thimerosal preservative commonly used in vaccines in the early 2000’s caused autism. Studies have debunked this belief.
For school teacher and former Colorado Springs resident, Sarah Tulien, vaccinations are a safeguard and not just for her children. “I vaccinate my kids,” she said firmly. “And millions of other are alive today because vaccines exist.” They save lives, she added. They save the lives of “yours, your kids’ and strangers you’ll never meet.” “Every unvaccinated kid who catches a preventable illness has just allowed that virus the opportunity to spread to others.”
Colorado parents do have a choice. They can refuse vaccinations for their children, but the state health department urges they take the time for serious consideration before opting for an exemption and not only for their child. “Measles is so contagious,” said Herlihy, “that if one person has it, up to 90 percent of those around him or her will get it if they are not immune.”
While the state respects the right of individuals to self-exempt, it also has full confidence in the current vaccines. They are, said Herlihy, “the easiest, safest and most effective way to prevent a variety of potentially serious diseases.” Vaccines, she added, “are considered one of the top 10 public health achievements in history.”