Disney Measles Outbreak Set Off Public Alarm

Posted February 20, 2015 at 12:10pm

It took the magic of Disney to get the public truly alarmed about an uptick in measles, which had already been a worry for infectious-disease specialists, said Paul Offit, an author and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

More than 100 cases of measles already have been reported in an outbreak linked to December visits to Disneyland in Orange County, Calif., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is the place where you bring your children for a fanciful wondrous sort of Garden-of-Eden like experience and here we have soiled the Garden of Eden,” Offit said in an interview. “Now you have Mickey and Minnie with spots. It made people angry.”

People should be concerned about the domestic rise in measles, an infection that the United States in 2000 declared eliminated within its borders as a naturally occurring threat, Offit said. Yet, there was far less interest in an outbreak last year centered around an Ohio Amish community, which the CDC says resulted in about 383 cases of the infection, he said.

Unvaccinated members of that community traveled to the Philippines, which is experiencing an outbreak of the measles, and brought the infection back. The reported number of measles cases for 2014 stood at 644, a record for recent years, the CDC said.

“Nobody got upset about that because it was seen as insular and other and not us,” Offit said, adding that many Americans considered the Amish outside of the mainstream.

With the infections linked to Disneyland visits, though, measles has moved into the spotlight. Lawmakers in both chambers and both parties have weighed in on the topic in recent weeks. President Barack Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, have both emphasized support for widespread use of vaccines.

Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., who has a doctorate in physics, said in a floor speech that lawmakers, especially those with a background in science, have a duty to help the public better understand vaccines. People need to understand, he said, that their choices not to vaccinate children healthy enough to get immunizations can have consequences far beyond their own families, as these diseases can spread to others. In his view, these choices are eroding what scientists see as a real win for American medicine.

“In 2000, the United States had effectively eliminated endemic measles — an effort 40 years in the making,” Foster said, “but all of that progress is quickly coming undone, not by an act of nature but by willful ignorance.”