WASHINGTON (CN) – Nearly two decades after the Centers for Disease Control declared measles eliminated in the United States, a Senate panel on Tuesday tackled the factors driving a resurgence of preventable diseases.
The Centers for Disease Control has confirmed 206 cases of measles in 11 states since Jan. 1, and six outbreaks, including one in Clark County, Washington, where 70 people have contracted the deadly disease.
A full 61 of the cases occurred among the unvaccinated, and 51 occurred in children younger than 10, according to data from the Washington Health Department.
State Health Secretary John Wiesman testified Tuesday morning before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that there are 200 people working on the outbreak in Washington, at a cost of more than $1 million.
The state recommends that unvaccinated individuals who have come into contact with an infected person remain quarantined for 21 days.
Measles, which is characterized by a cough, high fever, runny nose and rash, is contagious for four days before the rash appears and for four days after. The virus can live for up to two hours in the airspace where an infected person coughs or sneezes. As a result, the CDC says 90 percent of people without immunity who are exposed will become infected.
While largely eradicated in the United States, measles remains among the greatest causes of death of children in undeveloped countries, the CDC says.
For some parents who choose to keep their children unvaccinated, however the resurgence of measles domestically has not outmatched their fears of vaccine side effects.
While rare, severe side effects and complications from vaccines can happen:
The Court of Federal Claims, which handles vaccine-injury lawsuits, compensated such individuals in 4,172 cases between 2006 and 2017. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, that works out to about one person compensated per every 1 million doses of vaccine.
Since 1988 meanwhile the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has paid out $4 billion to victim families.
For years, a key concern for parents has been a supposed link between vaccines and autism.
Jonathan McCullers, the pediatrician-in chief at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, said Tuesday no such link exists.
“There is absolutely no evidence at this time that vaccines cause autism,” said McCullers, who also chairs the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
The claim that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine causes autism was first raised in 1998 in a paper published by, but ultimately retracted from, The Lancet, a respected journal in the United Kingdom.
McCullers said Tuesday that no other studies have reached the conclusion reported in 1998 by AJ Wakefield. To the contrary, he said, numerous other studies have been unable to prove a link between vaccines and autism.
McCullers also noted, however, that autism is only one among a complex set of fears raised by parents who either oppose vaccines or are hesitant to have their children vaccinated.
McCullers said social media helps spread of misinformation about vaccines.
“When parents get much of their information from the internet or social media platforms such as twitter and Facebook, reading fringe ideas in the absence of accurate information can lead to understandable concern and confusion,” McCullers said.
Establishing a rapport with parents and individualizing vaccine education is key to addressing the particular fears parents have about vaccinating their children, he said.
Wiesman echoed McCullers’ concerns about the challenges of communicating with parents to combat misinformation.
“Public health and health care professionals face significant communications challenges with those who are uncertain about vaccinations because of fear, distrust, and/or misinformation,” he said. “The increasing influence social media has over personal health decisions by promoting false information is alarming.”
Measles outbreaks in the United States are largely attributed to infected travelers coming from countries where the disease is still common. Domestic communities with higher numbers of unvaccinated people are most vulnerable to outbreaks.
McCullers said as well that the problem is worsened by expanding vaccine exemptions beyond those that are medically necessary.
Three states allow only medical exemptions from vaccination, while 30 states offer religious exemptions, and 17 allow religious and personal exemptions.
Pointing to California as an example, McCullers said when the state eliminated nonmedical exemptions, the vaccination climbed back to 97 percent following a large measles outbreak between 2014 and 2015.
Libertarian Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky expressed distaste for vaccine mandates, especially for nonlethal diseases, saying sometimes they’ve “run amok.”
“Force is not consistent with the American story,” Paul said. “Nor is force consistent with the liberty our forefathers sought when they came to America.”
Paul’s closing remark was met with a round of applause, after he acknowledged that he and his children are vaccinated because he believes the benefits greatly outweigh the risks.
“But I still do not favor giving up on liberty for a false sense of security,” he said.
Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana pushed back on Paul’s statements, noting that, as a physician himself, he’s seen firsthand the devastating health consequences the unvaccinated can suffer.
Cassidy said the only mandated requirement for vaccines is that kids cannot enter school if they are not vaccinated.
“If you’re such a believer in liberty that you do not wish to be vaccinated, then there should be a consequence, and that is that you cannot infect other people,” Cassidy said.