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A Closer Look at the Vaccine Debate

A measles outbreak that originated at Disneyland in California in late 2014 has added fuel to the vaccine debate in the United States. In the first two months of 2015, more than 150 cases in 17 different states were reported to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC). Most of the cases involve people who did not receive the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and can be traced back to the Disneyland outbreak, but additional outbreaks — including one in a daycare center outside of Chicago — have popped up unrelated.

The measles outbreak comes on the heels of a serious whooping cough outbreak from 2012-2014. Medical experts blame the spread of these highly contagious illnesses on a growing anti-vaccination trend among today's parents. California and Arizona both saw a nearly 70 percent increase in vaccination exemptions from 2009 to 2013. For the country as a whole, philosophical or religious exemptions increased 37 percent in the same period. See this map to see childhood vaccination rates by state.

The anti-vaccination trend appears to be occurring in pockets — certain towns or school communities — which can create "hot spots" for diseases to easily spread to unvaccinated people, including infants who have not yet received all of their vaccines. USA Today created a tool that you can use to search for immunization rates by elementary school (in 27 states with available data). An analysis of immunization data in 13 states shows that nearly 1 in 7 schools have vaccination rates below 90 percent — which could put "herd immunity" at risk in those areas. Some schools have immunization rates below 50 percent.

So what's the story behind the growing anti-vaccination movement? And is the trend likely to continue?

Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Medical experts and the CDC have hailed immunizations as one of the greatest public health achievements in history. But few of today's parents were alive to see the effects of deadly and crippling diseases like polio, diphtheria, measles, and mumps, which their parents or grandparents probably witnessed or experienced firsthand. The History of Vaccines, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, provides a timeline of diseases and vaccines, which shows how immunizations have been boosting global health for centuries.

Some of today's parents who choose not to vaccinate their children think the diseases that shots help prevent are no longer a serious threat to their family or this country. Globally, measles killed more children than car accidents, drowning, or AIDS did in 2013. And measles are still dangerous in the U.S., where nearly one-third of children who contract it under age 5 end up in the hospital, according to the CDC. Serious cases can lead to pneumonia, brain damage, deafness, and death.

The U.S. has seen vaccination rates rise and fall, depending on the prevalence of the disease, in the past. Following high rates of measles vaccination and a major decline in measles cases in the 1970s, vaccination rates dropped in the '80s. This led to a serious measles epidemic from 1989-1991 that sickened more than 55,000 Americans and killed 123. Then the U.S. got back on track and eliminated "homegrown" (non-imported) cases of the measles by the year 2000, only to see vaccination rates begin to fall and measles cases emerge again in the following decade.



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