THE ISSUE: Vaccine-preventable measles continue to proliferate.
OUR OPINION: With Florida at risk, it’s a public health issue to refuse vaccination.
There have been lots of news reports recently about rapidly increasing numbers of measles cases throughout the U.S. Why now, and what can be done?
Measles in the early days was a worldwide killer. In the first decade of required reporting in the U.S., measles killed some 6,000 every year. But a vaccine became available in the 1960s, and its widespread use dramatically reduced the disease rate. Measles was declared eliminated from the United States in 2000, thanks to this highly effective vaccination program.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that since 2000 the annual number of cases has ranged from a low of 37 in 2004 to a high of 667 in all of 2014. This year’s case count exceeded 2014 levels last month and continues to climb, with most cases being among those not vaccinated against measles.
Why are we seeing such spikes now? It’s all about vaccination — or lack of it. With more parents opting not to have their children given the two recommended vaccinations, the previous blanket of community protection has been shredded.
Community immunity — also known as “herd immunity” — occurs when a critical mass of the population is protected through immunization. That threshold is different based on factors including a disease’s contagion potential. The more members of the herd who are immune, the better protected the population is from disease outbreaks because vaccination breaks the chain of transmission. Some people cannot get vaccinated — for example those with weakened immune systems — so herd immunity can protect them as well as those who have been vaccinated.
The immunity threshold for measles, which is extremely contagious and can spread through the air, is high, at 95%. The state’s current vaccination rate for kindergarteners is about 94%, but that 1% can make a big difference and pose a major health threat.
Although Florida has only reported two cases this year — neither in Citrus County — our state is vulnerable due to the numbers of people traveling from areas outside the U.S. that don’t have high vaccination rates. A recent study named four Florida counties with international airports among the top 25 nationwide most likely to see the next measles outbreak. Two — Hillsborough and Orange — are our neighbors.
In Florida children are required to have certain vaccinations to enter daycare, and for public or private K-12 schools. However, the law allows parents to file for an exemption for one of two reasons. First, a medical exemption can be granted if a child’s physician states in writing that the child cannot be fully immunized due to medical reasons. Second, a religious exemption may be issued “if immunizations are in conflict with the religious tenets and practices of the child’s parent or guardian,” according to the Florida Department of Health, and are to be “issued by a County Health Department and based on established religious beliefs or practices only.”
We urge parents, adults who have not been vaccinated, and anyone who has questions to speak with their physicians. Educate yourself on contagious diseases, risk factors and immunizations. Pay attention to credible sources. We also urge lawmakers to keep an eye on the trend of increasing vaccination exemptions, and to curb false claims that allow children to enter the schools unvaccinated. The entire community’s health depends on it.