Unvaccinated Orange County Leads the Way in Scary State Measles Outbreak

Monday, March 31, 2014
(photo: Associated Press)

Nearly 10% of the kindergartners in Orange County’s Capistrano Unified School District whose parents signed waivers exempting them from measles vaccinations were rewarded by leading their community to the worst outbreak of measles in California.

The disease, nearly eradicated in North America, is surging throughout the state. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) reported last Friday that 49 confirmed cases have been recorded in the state this year compared to four last year, and Orange County is leading the way.

Twenty-one cases have been confirmed in OC, its worst outbreak in decades, and public health officials are warning that this is just the beginning. Years of right-wing blathering about unproven dangers from vaccinations have reintroduced diseases like measles and whooping cough, thought to be virtually eliminated from the country. 

The Public Health department reported that 16,000 kids entered kindergarten in the state this year without being vaccinated because of their parents personal beliefs, 15% more than the year before. The scale has now been tipped for those parents who say that harm from vaccinations—debunked, unsubstantiated claims of autism and immune deficiancies—are outweighed by the benefits.   

California incidents of measles have ranged between four and 40 cases a year since 2000, when the disease was declared eliminated in the United States. This year, counties besides OC reporting measles are: Los Angeles (10), Riverside (5), San Diego (4), Contra Costa (4), San Mateo (3), Santa Clara (1) and Alameda (1).

Measles, a highly contagious viral disease, can be spread through the air by a cough or a sneeze from someone with the disease. Symptoms include fever, a cough, runny nose, and a rash. Infants, pregnant women and folks with impaired immune systems are more susceptible to complications, which include diarrhea, ear infections, pneumonia and, in some cases, death.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says measles “is so contagious that if one person has it, 90% of the people around him or her will also become infected if they are not protected.”

The Public Health department said that 11 of the 49 infected patients had traveled outside of North and South America to parts of the world where measles is not uncommon. Of the rest, 30 had contact with people who had measles and three had contact with international travelers.

As usual, the common denominator for outbreaks of a once-controlled disease is parents not immunizing their children. The Orange County Register reported that parents had signed waivers for 415 of 4,967 kindergartners in Capistrano. Around 7% signed up in nearby Huntington Beach. Around 12% of students in the Laguna Beach Unified School District got waivers in 2012.

It doesn’t take a lot of people bailing out on vaccinations to affect the entire community. Scientists say that once fewer than 95% of people are vaccinated, a community loses “herd” immunity.

Californians can skip vaccinations for religious reasons and don’t have to explain that is their 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.   

That benefit is being downplayed, and overshadowed by fear, among some groups that have decided that vaccines carry a high risk of causing autism and other serious maladies. There is no science to support that belief. But that level of ignorance is a prime mover behind new surges in once-controlled diseases.    

Last September, the CDC determined that 82% of the measles cases it saw nationwide involved unvaccinated people and 9% those who didn’t know their vaccination status.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

O.C.'s Rash of Measles Cases Worst in Years (by Marla Jo Fisher, Orange County Register)

More California Children Unvaccinated Due to Parental Concerns (by Phillip Reese, San Jose Mercury News)

Orange County, California Is Experiencing Its Worst Measles Outbreak in Decades (by Mason Atkins, ThinkProgress)

Orange County Confirms 21 Cases of Measles (by Anh Do, Los Angeles Times)

California Measles Cases Jump Dramatically; 49 So Far in 2014 (by Rachel Dornhelm, KQED)

We Thought We Already Eradicated Measles—But Thanks to Ongoing Anti-Vaccine Beliefs, It’s Back (by Tara Culp-Ressler, ThinkProgress)

California Whooping Cough Epidemic Connected to Anti-Vaccine Parents (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Measles Count Reaches 49 in California (California Department of Public Health)

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