Our state’s recent viral dose of unwanted national attention — no, not L’affaire Bezos — made its airborne journey all the way to the halls of Congress last week.
Yes, we’re talking about the measles outbreak, numbering 71 and counting, and the threat that an avid, ill-informed anti-vaccination faction clustered in the southwestern corner of the state poses to public health. Congratulations, our plight is being held up as a cautionary tale at hearings in the other Washington.
Fortunately, in Olympia, the Legislature is making headway, despite virulent opposition from anti-vaxxers, on bills to either end the philosophical exemption for measles, mumps and rubella (HB 1638) or, more sweeping, end the exemption for all vaccinations (SB 5841).
But the issue is bigger, much bigger, than just in the Pacific Northwest. The spread of false or wildly misleading information about the supposed dangers of childhood vaccines and their now-thoroughly-discredited link to autism is a national scourge. We Washingtonians were just unlucky enough to be the recipient of a resulting outbreak that public health officials long have feared.
In response, Washington Sen. Patty Murray and other members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee brought in the state’s health secretary, John Weisman, to testify about the scope of Washington’s problem, its costs to combat it (well over $1 million), its strain on public-health workers and its implications on a national and worldwide level. His testimony was both factual and a little chilling, and his call for a booster shot of federal help to raise awareness of vaccine safety and counter the false narrative propagated by anti-vaxxers should be heeded.
What Weisman told committee members is, essentially, that oldest of medical maxims: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Only, in this case, the federal government needs to allocate much more than just an ounce, in budgetary terms, to spread the word that vaccines for measles and other communicable diseases are safe and saves lives.
Specifically, Weisman is calling for what public-health officials nationwide, on both the state and federal levels, have been seeking in recent years: (1) to raise the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention budget for prevention programs by 22 percent by 2022; (2) to reauthorize the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, currently operating at $400 million below funding levels from the early 2000s; (3) to bulk up electronic immunization records systems to give officials a way to reach out to parents; (4) to launch a national vaccine campaign, to be run by the CDC, similar to the Truth Tobacco awareness campaign a decade ago.
“We’ve lost much ground,” Weisman told senators. “Urgent action is necessary.”
He found a receptive, nonpartisan audience among lawmakers. Committee chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who extolled the virtues of vaccinations by telling about friends from his youth (pre-vaccine days) stricken by polio and confined to an iron lung. But Alexander saved his ire for those in the anti-vaccination camp.
“Internet fraudsters who claim vaccines are not safe are preying on unfounded fears and the daily struggles of parents,” Alexander said, “and creating a public health hazard that is entirely preventable.”
The hearing came a few days after the release of the latest large, peer-reviewed study showing no linkage between vaccines and autism. This research by Copenhagen’s Statens Serum Institut and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, involved a half million subjects from 1999 to 2010. They tracked the records of children who received the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines and compared them to autism diagnoses. No connection between the vaccine and autism were found, even concerning people with a family history of autism.
No matter how strong the research is, some misguided parents will not be convinced. That was made clear in committee testimony by 18-year-old Ohio high schooler Ethan Lindenberger, who made headlines recently by vaccinating himself against his mother wishes. The teen said the extent of his mother’s information about vaccines came from social media, namely, Facebook. Asked by a senator where he got his information when deciding to seek inoculation himself, Lindenberger said: “Not Facebook! From CDC, World Health Organization, scientific journals and also cited information from those organizations … accredited sources.” He said when he presented research to his mother, she replied: “That’s what they want you to think.”
Later, in an interview with the Washington Post, Lindenberger elaborated: “She didn’t trust any sources. She thought vaccines were a conspiracy by the government to kill children.”
Such irrationality, sadly, is all too common among the small but vocal anti-vaccination legions. The problem is, it only takes small percentage of opt-out parents to start an outbreak, as Washington’s cases show.
The state’s response to end exemptions is prudent. So is the recent response from social media sites. Amazon Prime has removed anti-vaxxer videos, and YouTube has “demonetized” them. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Facebook and Twitter are moving to block such clips.
Now, it’s time for the federal government to loosen the purse strings and unleash a massive pro-vaccine campaign, a la, the effort to combat tobacco use, to avoid another outbreak like the one seen in our state.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis