Measles resurgence raises concerns over vaccine exemptions
A major measles outbreak in Washington state is being blamed on low-vaccination rates. In response, Washington lawmakers are currently debating a measure seeking to remove a current exemption that allows parents to refuse vaccinating their child based on philosophical or personal beliefs.
Over the last month a major outbreak of measles has been spreading across Clark County in Washington state. In mid-January the county declared a public health emergency as cases of the highly contagious disease continued to grow.
The vast majority of verified cases so far have been in young, unvaccinated children (under the age of 10). Clark County has been referred to in the past as a "hot spot" for unvaccinated children. Recent data has revealed 7.9 percent of Clark County children commencing kindergarten in the 2017-18 school year were unvaccinated. The vast majority of those children utilized a personal or philosophical exemption to avoid vaccinations.
In general, every state in the US mandates children must be appropriately vaccinated before entering public schooling. However, there are several exemptions that currently exist allowing children to go unvaccinated. Seventeen states in the country have broad vaccine exemptions allowing parents to leave their children unvaccinated due to personal or philosophical beliefs. Washington is one of those states.
There are only three states in the country that have entirely barred non-medical vaccine exemptions - California, Mississippi, and West Virginia. California most notably tightened its rules on vaccine exemptions after a massive outbreak in late 2014 totaled nearly 150 cases. The outbreak was suspected to have originated in Disneyland theme parks.
In 2000, after several decades of widespread vaccinations, measles was officially declared to be eliminated in the United States. Since that low-infection point, cases of measles have been progressively rising. A striking 372 cases were reported in the United States last year. In the first month of 2019, there have already been 79 cases reported in the country.
The World Health Organization recently delivered its annual report on European rates of measles transmission revealing a concerningly similar trend. 2018 presented a massive surge in measles cases across Europe, more than triple the amount seen in 2017, and a startling 15 times more than the record low seen in 2016.
Looking at the data country to country in Europe reveals a direct correlation between local vaccination rates and measles outbreaks. Serbia, for example, reported the highest rates for measles infections over the past year and also generally recorded an average vaccination rate of around 86 percent. This is well below the 90 to 95 percent suggested as necessary for herd immunity. France, Italy and Greece have also reported some of the lowest vaccination rates in the European Union, with France in particular hovering around 85 percent.
Since the outbreak, demand for measles vaccinations in Clark County has soared 500 percent compared to the same time last year. Alan Melnick, the director of public health in Clark County suggests the upswing in vaccinations may be positive but notes, "I would rather it not take an outbreak for this to happen."