MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 7th of March. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, a potentially deadly disease is making a comeback.
U.S. health officials confirmed more than 200 cases of measles across 11 states in just the last two months. The biggest cluster of cases is in Clark County, Washington. The governor declared a state of emergency last month.
All this is prompting lawmakers to rethink exemptions for parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children.
REICHARD: U.S. health officials declared measles eradicated in the year 2000. But reluctance to vaccinate means more children vulnerable to the disease.
And it’s not just an American issue. An outbreak in the Philippines that began last month made thousands sick and killed more than one hundred, mostly children. That has health officials worried measles could again become a global health threat.
Meanwhile, parents whose children can’t get the measles vaccine face tough choices.
WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones brings us this report.
LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: Barbara Sand grew up in the Pacific Northwest, well aware that a higher than average number of parents in the region choose not to vaccinate their children. She never considered that a problem until health officials in Clark County, Washington, announced a measles outbreak.
SAND: So you just have to start reevaluating all these life things that you do and thinking like, well, is it worth it to go to that thing to put my child at potential risk for this?
Sand’s son J.J. is just 5 months old. He can’t get his first measles vaccine for another seven months. And because he’s so young, he has a higher risk of the complications associated with measles—pneumonia, encephalitis, and fatal lung damage.
Sand and her family live in Spokane, so she initially worried about exposure risks due to traveling. But then she learned the potential danger was much closer to home. The leaders of their church small group don’t vaccinate their children.
SAND: We sat down and kind of thought, well, where else is that a problem? And it’s kind of like, well, really anywhere. I mean you could go to the grocery store and have the same problem.
But Sand and her husband realized that if their small group included unvaccinated children, so might the church nursery. And the childcare program at her Bible Study Fellowship class.
SAND: I don’t know if everyone’s vaccinated there—I have no way of knowing. There’s like 300 women that go to this and a lot of kids.
Chances are, at least some of them are not vaccinated. About 9 percent of kindergarteners in Washington haven’t had the measles vaccine. The national average is around 6 percent. To achieve so-called herd immunity, infectious disease experts say no more than about 5 percent of the population can skip vaccinations.
Health experts have lobbied for years for tighter vaccine mandates. And outbreaks like this one renew those efforts. In 2015, an outbreak traced back to Disneyland sickened 147 people.
Despite robust opposition from parental rights groups, California lawmakers voted to end personal belief vaccine exemptions for children in public and private schools. Now California’s measles vaccination rate is 97 percent.
But strong opposition to vaccine mandates remains. Parents choose not to vaccinate for a variety of reasons, and activists insist they should have that right. Bernadette Pajer is with Informed Choice Washington.
PAJER: It’s not for policymakers to try to make that decision for the parents. It’s up to the parents to decide what risk they’re willing to accept.
At a Senate hearing this week, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul—a physician—expressed his support for parental choice. He said his children are vaccinated because the benefits “greatly outweigh” the risks—but he did acknowledge risks exist.
PAUL: Even the government admits that children are sometimes injured by vaccines. Since 1988, over $4 billion has been paid out from the vaccine injury compensation program.
Vaccine advocates say the trade-offs have proven more than worth it. Before the measles vaccine hit the market in 1963, U.S. doctors recorded almost 1 million cases of measles every year. And about 500 of those patients died. But four decades later, measles was virtually unheard of in the U.S.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blames the recurring outbreaks on the vaccine’s success at curbing the disease.
MESSONNIER: Because of our success, fewer and fewer doctors and parents have witnessed the serious and sometimes life-threatening consequences of vaccine-preventable diseases or VPDs. Because of our success, parents may wonder if vaccines are really necessary.
At least some parents in Washington state are no longer wondering. Four weeks after the latest measles outbreak began, the average number of vaccines administered in Clark County quadrupled.
State lawmakers are still debating whether to make vaccines mandatory. Barbara Sand isn’t sure how she feels about that, even though she believes in getting vaccinated. And she doesn’t blame her small group leaders for being cautious about what they put in their children’s bodies.
SAND: And it’s, you know, it’s not that we think they chose wrong or poorly, they get to make their own choices. It’s just more that like, well, now we have to make our own choices too.
And at least for now, that means reevaluating everywhere they go. Even church and Bible study.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Leigh Jones.