By Justine Von Arb, Staff Writer
A Dec. 2014 measles outbreak that started in Disneyland has spread not only the virus, but also an uproar about vaccinations. NPR reports some parents are threatening to leave certain medical practices if the pediatricians continue to see and treat unvaccinated patients. For highly contagious airborne diseases such as measles, exposure to the disease in a waiting room puts patients, especially infants, at risk.
When students enroll at Olivet, they’re asked to turn in a health and immunization form that records their required vaccinations against diseases such as tetanus and MMR: measles, mumps, and rubella. In other parts of the country, however, some parents are refusing to vaccinate their children against these diseases, leaving the air open for the spread of highly contagious diseases, such as measles.
According to Dr. Michael Pyle, M.D., a professor of biology at Olivet, infants between six and 12 months of age and those with suppressed immune systems are especially vulnerable. Such individuals usually aren’t vaccinated because the risk of their vaccination outweighs its benefits. In elderly patients, the immunity provided by a vaccine may wane, so booster shots are recommended. Unvaccinated individuals are encouraged to get the vaccination, and the Center for Disease Control notes that getting a second vaccination is not harmful.
The unvaccinated are protected by herd immunity, Pyle noted. If enough people are vaccinated against diseases – about 90 percent of a given population in the case of measles – immunity barriers are erected and the disease won’t spread quickly enough for it to cross the line from outbreak to epidemic.
Pyle has seen the dangerous effects of a measles outbreak firsthand in Papua New Guinea. “Measles is a terrible problem in the third world,” he said. The virus can be still be transmitted through the air two hours after contact with an infected person, and 90 people out of 100 who came in contact with the contaminated air contracted the disease.
According to the Center for Disease Control, signs and symptoms of measles in the first week of infection include high fever, cough, runny nose, and red, watery eyes. Two to three days after the first symptoms, tiny white spots may appear in the mouth. Three to five days after the first symptoms, a rash breaks out.
Due to the high risk of contagion, unvaccinated students in some California school districts were asked to stay home, Gil Chavez, the deputy director of the California Department of Public Health, told USA Today. Furthermore, Disneyland’s high volume of domestic and international visitors has contributed to the disease’s spread to Utah, Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Mexico – and the spread of press coverage of the outbreak.
Unvaccinated individuals are at a high risk for contagion in such cases of outbreak, and many parents have refused vaccinations for their children because of the “dust in the air as a result of the vaccine controversy,” Pyle said. Even though the vaccine-autism link has been disproven over and over, doctors and researchers still have to work to convince patients that there is no connection between the two.
Ultimately, the vaccination question results in a question of ethics. There’s an “ethical sense of responsibility” at work in such instances, Pyle said. Parents who don’t vaccinate their children come to terms with the fact that their child is at an increased risk of disease, but they also need to acknowledge that their decision endangers others who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. “You can make a decision for your child, but you need to know that your decision affects others,” Pyle said.