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Measles outbreak sparks fears, renews tensions over mandatory vaccination

Over 200 cases of measles have been confirmed in the U.S. in the past few months. About half of them occurred in the Pacific Northwest, leading Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to declare an emergency and the state legislature to propose further restricting, or even eliminating, inoculation exemptions. Nonetheless, opposition to mandatory vaccines remains fierce. Special correspondent Cat Wise reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Once declared eradicated in the United States, measles outbreaks are rattling regions of the country again this year. There have been more than 200 confirmed cases in just the past few months.

    And many are in the Pacific Northwest, which prompted a state of emergency in Washington state. It has also led to renewed concerns about pockets of unvaccinated children there and across the country.

    Today, officials spoke at a Senate hearing about the need to vaccinate. It included testimony from an Ohio teen who decided to get his own vaccinations when he turned 18.

    Ethan Lindenberger told senators that he defied his mother, her anti-vaccination beliefs, and others spreading that message, because he thought it was dangerous to himself and the public.

  • Ethan Lindenberger:

    For certain individuals and organizations that spread this misinformation, they instill fear into the public for their own gain, selfishly, and do so knowing that their information is incorrect.

    For my mother, her love, affection and care as a parent was used to push an agenda to create a false distress. And these sources which spread misinformation should be the primary concern of the American people.

    I quickly saw that the evidence and claims for myself were not accurate. And because of that, and because of my health care professionals that I was able to speak with and the information that was provided to me, I was able to make a clear, concise and scientific decision.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we said, the Pacific Northwest has been central in this battle, especially this year.

    Special correspondent Cat Wise reports from there on what is being done in the aftermath of the outbreak.

  • Cat Wise:

    Each weekday, Amber Gorrow, a real estate appraiser and mother of three, takes her young daughter to day care. But since the measles outbreak in her community Vancouver, Washington, just north of Portland, she's taking extra precaution.

  • Amber Gorrow:

    I have just been leaving the baby in the car and locking the door, which makes me uncomfortable, but I feel like he's safer there than, potentially, you know, contracting anything that's going around right now.

  • Cat Wise:

    At just 10 weeks, her son Leon is too young to receive the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. It's usually administered between a child's first birthday and 15 months, then again between ages 4 and 6.

    So, Gorrow has been avoiding public places altogether, the library, the grocery store, birthday parties any place where potentially infected children could spread this highly contagious disease.

  • Amber Gorrow:

    It's definitely an added stress that we don't need. And it's an unnecessary added stress. That's the frustrating part, is, it's not like — it's not like a weather incident that's really frustrating because we have to stay inside. It's like a preventable issue that we shouldn't be dealing with.

  • Dr. Lisa Bisgard:

    I heard there's a child that has a rash?

  • Cat Wise:

    Dr. Lisa Bisgard is the head of pediatrics for Kaiser Permanente in Vancouver. This clinic has had at least one case of confirmed measles.

    And because that disease can linger in the air for up to two hours, Kaiser and other clinics in the area have been admitting potential cases through side entrances to avoid infecting other patients.

  • Dr. Lisa Bisgard:

    We are trying to prevent possible infectious cases from coming into the office, because the virus is so contagious.

  • Cat Wise:

    Symptoms of measles include a high fever, runny nose, cough and red eyes. During winter, those can be hard to distinguish from the flu or a common cold. After three to five days, a large rash appears, usually first on the face, before spreading to other parts of the body.

    How serious is this disease?

  • Dr. Lisa Bisgard:

    It's very serious. A lot of people think, oh, it might be a small fever for a day or two and a little rash. And it's really not the case. Some of the children need to go to the emergency room, in some cases, need to be hospitalized for a few days.

    And then, of course, our patients who have cancer who cannot get the vaccine, or the little babies, are even more at risk. And measles can also cause brain infections as well, which a lot of people don't realize.

  • Cat Wise:

    With two doses, the MMR vaccine is 97 percent effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 91 percent of the population is vaccinated nationally.

    But to slow the spread of measles and protect those who can't get vaccinated for medical reasons, a concept known as herd immunity, around 95 percent of people in a community need to be vaccinated. But 17 states, including Washington and Oregon, allow for personal or philosophical exemptions to vaccines, and, within those states, vaccine rates can be far lower.

    Clark County is the epicenter of the measles outbreak in Washington and Oregon. The vaccination rate here is among the lowest in the country, just 78 percent.

  • Dr. Alan Melnick:

    Because it's exquisitely contagious, and we have a large unvaccinated population, this can spread like wildfire.

  • Cat Wise:

    Dr. Alan Melnick is the public health director for Clark County. He says the effort to track where infected people have gone, and then alert all those who have come into contact with them, is extremely time-consuming.

    State health officials from Washington and Idaho and the CDC have been helping out. The outbreak has already cost the state more than a million dollars and strained the county's resources.

  • Dr. Alan Melnick:

    It would be one thing if we just had to do this for a week or two. We have already been at this for over a month. And given the incubation period, the time from exposure to the time you develop symptoms, you got — one group of people get exposed. Then they expose another group of people seven to 21 days later.

    And this thing propagates over time.

  • Cat Wise:

    Measles was officially declared eliminated from the U.S. in the year 2000, but domestic outbreaks continue to pop up. Last year, there were 349 measles cases in the U.S. Most were in New York and New Jersey in unvaccinated Orthodox Jewish communities.

    Internationally, the World Health Organization has said, in Madagascar, there have been more than 900 deaths from an outbreak that started last September. And, in 2018, measles infections tripled in Europe to 83,000, the bulk in Ukraine.

    Dr. Melnick says the Washington strain is the same as the one in Eastern Europe.

  • Dr. Alan Melnick:

    As long as measles exists, as long as people travel in and out of communities, and as long as we have unvaccinated populations, it's inevitable that we're going to have measles outbreaks.

  • Cat Wise:

    While officials work to contain the measles outbreak in Clark County, here in Olympia at the state capitol, the debate over vaccines is ramping up.

  • Man:

    How do I not control my children's bodies?

  • Cat Wise:

    For decades, some parents have argued that their children became autistic because of vaccines. That link has been investigated and debunked.

  • Man:

    And yet we listen to our medical establishment telling us, we have proven, we have debunked the idea that vaccines cause autism.

  • Woman:

    Liars!

  • Man:

    And they are lying.

  • Cat Wise:

    Yet, at this protest against mandatory vaccines in Olympia, parents were convinced that their children and others continue to be harmed by vaccines.

  • Melissa Fisher:

    My beautiful nephew started, who having febrile seizures after his MMR.

    I feel that it should be a choice, and if I'm going to live in a state that is forcing that upon me, I will move.

  • Cat Wise:

    Does the recent outbreak concern you at all, given your children aren't vaccinated?

  • Christian Godwin:

    No, it doesn't concern me one bit. I believe that we have these illnesses and these sicknesses for a reason. We have to be — our bodies need to be immune to them.

  • Woman:

    Measles has always been around. This outbreak is nothing new.

  • Cat Wise:

    That was something we heard a lot, that measles isn't a big deal. But that's not what doctors and medical professionals say.

    In fact, before the measles vaccination program began in the U.S. in 1963, 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 4,000 developed brain swelling from the disease every year.

  • Dr. Alan Melnick:

    Measles is not a benign disease. We have already had a child hospitalized for this. The other misinformation that's going out there is about the vaccine itself. Some of this misinformation is really very sophisticated, and it looks like science. But it's nonsense.

  • Cat Wise:

    With this recent outbreak, there's been increased pressure on Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies to crack down on misleading information about vaccinations.

    And some, like YouTube and Pinterest, have already done so.

    Susie Olson-Corgan was one of the organizers of the anti-vaccine protest. She's with Informed Choice Washington. And she says people are here to fight for their children.

  • Susie Olson-Corgan:

    My main message is that we're all parents doing the best we can for our children. We want them to be healthy. We want them to have successful futures.

  • Cat Wise:

    But both health experts and legislators say those few who oppose vaccines are impacting the safety and well-being of many others.

  • Paul Harris:

    I think this is a very vocal minority that has very real concerns, and I want to hear them. But, on the same token, I need to have that immunity for my community.

  • Cat Wise:

    State Representative Paul Harris, a Republican who represents Clark County, is sponsoring new legislation in the aftermath of the outbreak. If passed, parents who wish to send their children to public or private schools would have to inoculate them with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, unless they qualify for a medical or religious exemption.

    There's also a Senate bill to remove personal and philosophical exemptions for all vaccines. But similar legislation failed in 2015. Back in Clark County, in the aftermath of the outbreak, vaccination rates have more than doubled.

    Amber Gorrow is glad more people are now getting vaccinated, but she worries that it may take another outbreak, or worse, to convince more people to vaccinate their children.

  • Amber Gorrow:

    I really, really hope it doesn't get to a point where there is a death, and then people go, oh, OK, maybe I don't want this happen to my kid after all. And it's a terrifying thought, because, you know, it could be my kid. It could be my infant.

  • Cat Wise:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Vancouver, Washington.

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