Congressional hearing on measles outbreak highlighted by anger, disruptions

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By Shamard Charles, M.D.

As cases of measles continue to rise across the United States, lawmakers met Wednesday to confront the growing public health threat.

The sometimes raucous hearing, held by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, laid out one of the main challenges: stopping the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine that have contributed to vaccine-hesitancy in many communities. At least twice, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., stopped the hearing when audience members, both for and against immunization, shouted down speakers over vaccine safety.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, acknowledged that there hasn’t been effective countering of the anti-vaccine movement.

“Misinformation is an important problem,” Fauci said. “The spread of misinformation that leads people to make poor choices, despite their well-meaning, is a major contributor to the problem we’re discussing.”

Since the beginning of the year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 159 cases of measles in 10 states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Oregon, Texas and Washington. The most alarming outbreak is in the Pacific Northwest where 65 measles cases — more than 40 percent of all U.S. cases — have occurred. In January, Clark County health officials declared a public health emergency. Almost all of the cases are unvaccinated children.

In 2000, measles was declared eliminated in the United States, a major public health victory. Nationally, 91 percent of children younger than 3 are vaccinated for measles. But in some communities, the rate has been declining. In Washington’s Clark County, where the outbreak is up to 65 cases, about 76 percent of kindergartners are unvaccinated.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, conceded that the pro-vaccine movements to counter misinformation campaigns have not been robust enough, despite the CDC’s efforts to provide the most “scientifically accurate information to providers on the front lines.”

“Vaccine hesitancy is the result of misinformation and misunderstanding of the MMR vaccine,” Messonier said.

The first dose of the MMR vaccine is given to children, ages 12 months to 15 months. The second dose is given when a child is between 4 and 6 years old.

“The vaccine is incredibly safe,” Fauci said. “The only way to protect those who are not old enough to get vaccinated or immune suppressed is to be part of that herd immunity.”

Herd immunity occurs when enough people are vaccinated against an infectious disease to protect others in the community who are not.

“When that umbrella of herd immunity lifts, it’s truly a catastrophe waiting to happen.”