OUTBREAK

01.23.15 10:55 AM ET

Anti-Vaxxers Brought Measles to the Happiest Place on Earth

A measles outbreak has sickened 70 people at Disneyland, and could be the spark that brings the once-eradicated disease back in force.

It’s been years since I visited California’s Disneyland, only just once as a small boy. Now that I have kids of my own, I know that sooner or later a trip to its bigger Florida cousin, Disney World, is probably in the cards. (They did right by my special-needs godson, so they’re in my good graces.) I’ve heard that it pays to plan well, as certain storied princesses can be a little bit hard to find.

But what isn’t so elusive at Disneyland these days? A highly contagious infectious disease.

As of this writing, over 70 people have been infected with measles at the California theme park, including six infants too young to have been vaccinated. Roughly 25 percent of those who came down with the illness needed to be hospitalized. The outbreak has spread to several surrounding states, as well as to Mexico.

Another interesting statistic from the outbreak? Eighty-two percent of those infected were not vaccinated, either because they were too young or because they (or their parents) had elected not to be.

It’s nothing short of disgraceful that we live in a country where, in a little over a dozen years, a disease can go from being eliminated to record numbers of new cases. The reason the disease was once considered eradicated in the United States is because there is a safe and effective vaccine against it, and the reason it’s coming back is because people are making the impossibly absurd decision to skip it. It’s why there were outbreaks in major cities across America last year, and why you can bet your last dollar we won’t be done with measles in 2015 after this outbreak has faded from the headlines.

Why? Because when enough people refuse the vaccine out of a self-centered willingness to let other parents take the imaginary risk they associate with the vaccine, there won’t be enough responsible people to keep it effectively at bay. Herd immunity, the effect that comes with sufficient numbers of people being immunized to keep the community as a whole protected, breaks down below a certain threshold. The more vaccine exemptions people get, the weaker our collective immunity will be.

Sooner or later, if enough people refuse the vaccine against this otherwise preventable illness, it will go from “eliminated” to “endemic.” That means there will be enough continuous infections to keep the disease going within our own borders, without need for an unprotected traveler to import it from another country. Measles would need to be eliminated all over again. Think it can’t happen? It already did in the United Kingdom.

It’s worth pausing and thinking back over the past few months, when the nation couldn’t stop worrying about Ebola. A man is diagnosed with the illness after returning from Africa and promptly pilloried in the press for daring to ride the subway, even though he was totally without symptoms and no threat to anyone at the time. A clueless pundit pontificates about possible airborne spread of the disease, despite reassurances from public-health officials to the contrary.

But when it comes to a disease that actually can linger in the air for hours after a contagious person has breathed it, and one that actually can be transmitted for days before a person becomes symptomatic? Plenty of people are all too happy to blithely opt out of protecting their children against it, assuming enough people will choose otherwise to make up for their decision. Never mind that there is no cure for measles, that it can cause death or permanent disability, and is horribly unpleasant under the best of circumstances.

What will it take to reverse this infuriating trend? I don’t rightly know. However, it certainly doesn’t help matters when The New York Times, in reporting about the Disneyland outbreak, gives equal time to anti-vaccine advocates.

“I have no proof that this vaccine causes harm,” says Santa Monica pediatrician Jay Gordon in the Times article. “I just have anecdotal reports from parents who are convinced that their children were harmed by the vaccine.”

Which is to say, he has no reliable evidence at all. Would the paper of record give him space on their pages if he said the outbreak was due to snack foods at the park causing an imbalance of humours, or an evil spell cast by Maleficent because she objects to how she’s portrayed in Sleeping Beauty? Of course not. (Please don’t prove me wrong, Gray Lady.) But when someone wants to offer up an anti-vaccine theory with no more scientific validity than those, in it goes.

The widespread refusal to vaccinate against preventable illnesses must end. It serves only to make our country less healthy, and achieves no good whatsoever for those who choose it. They are the cause for the outbreak at Disneyland this year and across the country last year. If a change isn’t made, outbreaks like those will cease to be news, because they’ll simply be with us all the time.