A measles outbreak in the so-called happiest place on earth — Disneyland — has given rise to a vitriolic argument between doctors and those who believe vaccines pushed by Big Pharma and government bureaucrats are harming children.
The United States eliminated measles in 2000 after a nearly 40-year-long vaccination campaign to curb the virus. But on Wednesday, California health officials announced they'd diagnosed 59 cases of measles in residents since December.
Forty-two of those cases were linked to Disneyland — five of which were Disney employees. Others stemmed from visitors to the resort. An additional five cases were found in nearby states, and in Mexico — not because of a special threat from that country, but because it shares a heavily trafficked border with Southern California.
After someone infected with measles was on a high school campus in California's Orange County, officials told parents that students who had not been vaccinated would be barred from class. Two dozen students were reportedly sent home from the school that week and told not to return until the end of the month.
Some doctors immediately blamed the outbreak on anti-vaccine activists like former TV personality Jenny McCarthy, who has very publicly blamed vaccines for her child's autism, and cast doubt on whether or not they really protect kids' health. McCarthy now dubiously claims she was never so critical of vaccines.
James Cherry, a pediatrician and infectious diseases at the University of California Los Angeles, said measles would have never spread in Disneyland if everyone made sure their kids were vaccinated against it.
"There are some pretty dumb people out there," Cherry told The New York Times this week. "It wouldn't have happened otherwise."
But a vocal critic of vaccinations, National Vaccine Information Center President Barbara Loe Fisher, said she thinks Cherry was being closed-minded. Her son developed brain swelling after a vaccination and now has learning disabilities, she said, adding that doctors and drug makers don't want parents to know about the dangers of vaccinations.
"People like to make this a black and white issue," Loe Fisher told VICE News. "We either do it the way the government has outlined or there is something wrong with you. We have a lot of people with adverse reactions to vaccinations."
She noted that the federal government has paid out more than $3 billion in settlements to people who claim injuries from vaccines over the past 25 years. Funded by surcharges on shots, she says that the government's settlements provide an incentive to Big Pharma to keep manufacturing vaccines instead of worrying about lawsuits. To Leo Fisher, the settlements prove there's collusion between the private and public sectors to ram vaccines down the throats of American families.
A vocal critic of Loe Fisher and her supporters, however, said she was peddling nonsense.
"They are conspiracy theorists," said Dr. Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "They believe there is big international conspiracy to hide the truth."
Sure, some vaccines cause adverse reactions, he said. But he stressed that those reactions occur in a minute proportion of kids. "Vaccines stand on an enormous mountain of evidence and stood the test of time."
The real problem with those who deny the value of vaccines, Offit said, is that they had never seen widespread infection from preventable diseases. A century ago, diphtheria, polio, and other deadly diseases terrified families. In the early 1960s, shortly before measles vaccinations started en masse, around 3.5 millions kids contracted the virus annually, and around 500 died.
"I saw friends of mine who were hospitalized with measles. You didn't have to convince me to get vaccinated," he said.
Offit said that the blessing and the curse of the US's success in combating those diseases with vaccinations is that too many people now take our good health for granted at a time when many are also understandably suspicious of anything elites in the private and public sector say is absolutely necessary for our own good.
"For them, taking these vaccines is a matter of faith — faith in the pharmaceutical industry, and faith in the federal government," he said. "There is a crisis in that faith."
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