Children at Risk

Disney’s Sick History With Measles Epidemics

Vaccinations all but ended measles by 1982, when new cases hit Disneyland and elsewhere. Now health officials believe one infected person sparked a new outbreak at the theme park.

01.29.15 10:55 AM ET

Among the 195 children exposed to measles at an Arizona clinic was Eli Jacks, who is only 10 months old and therefore too young to be vaccinated.

Also exposed was his 3-year-old sister, Maggie Jacks. She belongs to a group of children who cannot be vaccinated for other reasons.

“Children who have cancer,” her father, Dr. Timothy Jacks, writes in an open letter to the person he figures is ultimately responsible for the mass exposure at the clinic. “Children who are immunocompromised. Children who are truly allergic to a vaccine or part of a vaccine (i.e anaphylaxis to egg). These children remain at risk. They cannot be protected... except by vaccinating people around them.”

In August, Maggie was diagnosed with pre-B acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She immediately began a course of treatment and she was admitted to Phoenix Children’s Hospital (PCH) last Monday for a fourth round of intensive chemotherapy. She was discharged to everyone’s delight on Wednesday, and that afternoon her mother, Anna, took her to the PCH East Valley Specialty Clinic to have blood drawn for follow-up lab tests. The mother brought little Eli along.

“Everything went fine, and we were feeling good... until Sunday evening when we got the call,” Jacks writes. 

The call was from the clinic.

“Anna, Maggie, and Eli had been exposed to measles,” Jacks writes.

Jacks is a pediatrician and would have made sure to vaccinate Eli if the child had reached the minimum age of 1 and Maggie—were it not for the leukemia. 

“Exposed unvaccinated children have a 90% chance of getting measles,” he writes.

Mass vaccination had all but extinguished measles in America by 1982, when there were three brief outbreaks, one originating in Disneyland, where 34 were infected. Among them was a 12-year-old from Phoenix who returned home and infected 14 others.

After that, the country went year after year with no significant outbreaks. Health officials dared to announce that measles had been “eliminated” in the United States as long as parents ensured that every child who could be vaccinated was vaccinated.

By doing so, those parents also were protecting the children who could not be vaccinated.

But an increasing number of parents came to believe myths about the supposed dangers of the MMR vaccine. They proved willing to place other children at undeniable risk so as to protect their own children from imaginary risk.

Health officials believe it only took one infected person to spark a new outbreak at Disneyland  this most recent Christmas season. Those who had been exposed then took the disease to at least seven other states and Mexico.

And, just as in 1982, someone brought Mickey Mouse measles to Phoenix.

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“By now we’ve all heard of the measles outbreak that originated in Disneyland,” Jacks writes. “Or more accurately, originated from an unvaccinated person that infected other similarly minded vacationers. I won’t get into a debate about the whole anti-vaccine movement, the thimerisol controversy (no longer even used in childhood vaccines), or the myth that MMR causes autism (there are changes in autistic brain chemistry prior to birth).”

He goes on, “Let’s talk measles for just a minute… Measles is highly contagious (>90% infectious) and can survive airborne in a room and infect someone two hours later. Another fun fact is that measles is transmittable before it can be diagnosed—four days before the characteristic rash appears.”  

He cites federal Centers for Disease Control stats that as many as 20 percent of the people who get measles will develop serious complications. One in a thousand develops inflammation of the brain. Roughly one in a thousand dies.

“Our two kids lacked the immunity to defend against measles,” Jacks says. “The only protection available was multiple shots of rubeola immune globulin (measles antibodies). There were three shots for Maggie and two shots for Eli.”

Maggie would not be getting the holiday from needles that her family had been hoping she would enjoy. Eli got simultaneous shots in each leg.

“They screamed, but they now have some temporary protection against measles,” Jacks writes. “We pray it is enough.”

A total of 79 cases had been reported in the new outbreak as of Wednesday, at least four of them infants. Hundreds more had been exposed.

“Thanks for screwing up our three-week ‘vacation’ from chemotherapy,” Jacks says. “Instead of a break, we get to watch for measles symptoms and pray for no fevers (or back to the hospital we go).”

He makes it known that his family has been forced to cancel plans for a trip to see snow.

“Maggie really wanted to see snow, but we will not risk exposing anyone else,” he says.

Jacks allows that he is “upset and just a little bit scared.”

He says to whatever parent of an unvaccinated child who may have endangered his Maggie and Eli, “I assume you love your child just like I love mine. I assume that you are trying to make good choices regarding their care. Please realize that your child does not live in a bubble. When your child gets sick, other children are exposed.”

He is speaking to all who read his posting when he notes that the PCH “has been great through this whole ordeal” and reports, “We have done what is physically possible to protect our children.”

“Now we pray,” he says. “Please pray alongside us.”  

He signs the letter as what he so clearly is before he is a doctor or anything else.

“Papa Bear.”