- So far this year, there have been six measles outbreaks, and 159 people infected across 10 states.
- While some state lawmakers have proposed laws to ban parents from opting out of vaccinating their children, other states have put forth laws that would expand exemptions for religious or personal reasons.
- Congress held a hearing on Wednesday in response to the measles outbreaks, and addressed the growing anti-vaccination movement.
- Vaccination proponents are concerned that social media has played a major role in pushing forth anti-vax rhetoric.
There have been six measles outbreaks so far this year, reinvigorating the debate over state-level vaccination requirements and spurring lawmakers to put forth efforts that in some cases will make it more difficult – and in others, easier – for parents to opt out of vaccinating their children.
Measles outbreaks, defined as three or more cases, have occurred in New York, Illinois, Texas, and Washington this year, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. In total, 159 people have been infected across 10 states. In Washington State alone, almost 70 people have been sickened by the disease, costing the state more than $US1 million and prompting Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a state of emergency.
In response, states have proposed a handful of laws. In New York,Iowa, Vermont, and New Jersey, for example, officials have put forth the idea of eliminating religious exemptions for vaccines. Measures in Washington State, Colorado, Arizona, and Minnesota would ban personal exemptions, while proposals in Maine and Oregon would remove religious and personal exemptions.
Almost every state allows vaccination exemptions for religious reasons
On Wednesday, the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing in response to the recent outbreaks.
“We are now seeing a resurgence of measles, primarily due to gaps in vaccine coverage that allow sporadic outbreaks to occur,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, during the hearing. “Unfortunately, many of these gaps in the United States result from an anti-vaccine movement that continues to gain momentum.”
Measles is a highly contagious illness caused by a virus that lives in an infected persons’ nose and throat mucus. Early symptoms include fever, cough, runny nose, and red, watery eyes, and can develop to tiny white spots in the mouth and a rash that spreads across the body. More serious complications can range from diarrhoea and ear infections to pneumonia and swelling of the brain. The risk is highest for kids younger than 5 and adults older than 20, and for every 1,000 children who gets measles, one or two will die from the disease, according to the CDC.
All but three states already allow exemptions for religious reasons, and 17 states also allow non-medical exemptions for personal or philosophical beliefs, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. California eliminated religious and personal exemptions after a measles outbreak that began at Disneyland in 2014 sickened 147 people and spread across the United States and Canada.
Yet, while some states have proposed laws to ban exemptions in order to curb measles outbreaks, other states have swung widely against that, introducing efforts to bolster exemptions on the basis of religious or personal grounds.
Last week, for instance,Arizona lawmakers voted to advance three bills that would make it easier for parents to get exemptions in the state. Other states, like Iowa, Hawaii, Mississippi,Rhode Island, New Jersey, and West Virginia, have also proposed legislation expanding exemptions. A proposed Oklahoma law would require health care facilities to grant religious exemptions to employees who object to certain immunizations.
“We are starting to see a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases we thought we got rid of in the US. I am concerned when the proportion of individuals exempting is growing and becomes large enough that it puts the public at risk,” Nathaniel Smith, president-elect of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, told INSIDER. “Measles can spread very, very rapidly. Literally like wildfire, and once you start getting cases you will see children dying from that.”
Social media fuels the anti-vax movement
While measles was declared eliminated in the US in 2000, according to the CDC, there have been outbreaks in recent years and a gradual increase in the number of children who, by 24 months, aren’t vaccinated. Prior to the introduction of a measles vaccine in 1963, the US had between 400 to 500 measles-related deaths each year.
Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, one of the oldest and most well-established anti-vax groups, told INSIDER her organisation is supporting more bills in the current legislative session than ever before – 61 out of 140 vaccine-related bills across 31 states. “There is no question there are more families than ever involved now,” she said. “This is a parental rights and human rights and civil liberties issue.”
Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told INSIDER anti-vax efforts can be linked to a thriving online movement across multiple social media platforms.
“It’s this massive propaganda campaign,” Hotez said. “By some estimates there are almost 500 anti-vaccine websites amplified on Facebook, they weaponize Amazon… we are seeing real public health damage being done.”
In response to the proliferation of anti-vax materials on its platform, the social media site Pinterest recently blocked all searches using terms related to vaccinations in an effort to curb the spread of misinformation on its site.
Experts say laws to ban exemptions are important in preventing outbreaks – and they generally do pass. Michelle Mello, a professor of health research and policy at Stanford University, pointed to a recent study that found that while more than 50 per cent of the 175 proposed laws in state legislatures between 2011 and 2017 pushed to expand vaccine exemptions, the majority of laws ultimately passed during that period limited exemptions.
“I see it as an issue where almost everyone agrees people should be vaccinated, and there is a small and well organised minority that opposes those policies in a very visible way,” Mello told INSIDER.
Going forward, proponents of vaccinations fear that as more states continue to introduce laws opting out of vaccinations, the country will experience record numbers of people infected by preventable diseases.
“One of the challenges is when people forget what a big problem [measles] used to be and then forget why they’re actually doing it,” Bruce Y. Lee, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told INSIDER. “Vaccines are a victim of their own success.”
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