An estimated 20 million cases of measles are reported every year worldwide, killing 164,000 people. The United States used to experience around 500,000 cases and 500 deaths a year until the introduction of a vaccine in the 1960s brought the disease under control in this country.
In fact, it was nearly eradicated in California—just 37 cases in 2004—until a growing number of parents stopped having their kids immunized for religious reasons or fear that some vaccines caused autism and other serious maladies. There are already 61 cases of the highly contagious respiratory disease at last count this year and parents in 26 of the 42 cases where immunization data was available had skipped the vaccine.
Californians can skip vaccinations and don’t have to state a reason. But the state passed a law in 2012 requiring parents who opt out to sign a document that verifies they understand the benefits of vaccines. Last September, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determined that 82% of the measles cases it saw nationwide involved unvaccinated people; 9% didn’t know their vaccination status.
The Los Angeles Times reported this week, amid a statewide resurgence in measles and whooping cough cases, that twice as many parents are skipping immunizations than just seven years ago. Around 3.1% of kindergartners in classes with at least 10 students received an exemption last fall, compared to 1.5% in 2007.
The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) reported that 16,000 kids entered kindergarten in the state in 2013 without being vaccinated because of their parents’ personal beliefs, 15% more than the year before.
The newspaper’s analysis of CDPH data found that the surge is being led in some parts of the state by wealthy folks. The anti-vax movement, condemned by most of the scientific community, has high-profile celebrity support—Robert Kennedy Jr., Jenny McCarthy, Katie Couric, Bill Maher—and influence in upscale enclaves.
Around 950 schools in the state have vaccination exemption rates of 8% or more, the rate at which a school loses what is known as herd immunity. More than 150 of the schools are in Los Angeles County and virtually all of them are in census tracts where incomes are 60% above the county median, the Times reported.
Most of the L.A. County parents that invoke the exemption live along the coast and a good many of them have kids in private schools. Around 25% of the private school kindergartners were in schools with a vaccination exemption rate below the herd safety level, compared to 10% in 2007. Public school rates jumped from 5% to 11% during the same period.
Dr. Gil Chavez, deputy director of the CDPH’s Health Center for Infectious Diseases, told the Times, “We have schools in California where the percent of children who exercise the personal belief exemption is well above 50%.”