vaccines

Imagine that you're a judge, and you're asked to decide the case brought by Mary and Dave Wildman.

Back in 1997, Mary took the couple's 1-year-old son, Nicholas, to the doctor for the combination vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella. Right after the MMR shot, Mary says, Nicholas started crying uncontrollably.

"This was unbelievable screaming," she says.

Mary and her mom started driving Nicholas back to their home in Evans City, Pa.

Back in the 1960s, the U.S. started vaccinating kids for measles. As expected, children stopped getting measles.

But something else happened.

Childhood deaths from all infectious diseases plummeted. Even deaths from diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea were cut by half.

Scientists saw the same phenomenon when the vaccine came to England and parts of Europe. And they see it today when developing countries introduce the vaccine.

California has been dealing with a big measles outbreak since December, when cases emerged among visitors to Disneyland in Orange County.

Measles spread quickly afterward. As of Friday, the state had confirmed 133 measles cases among residents since December.

Of the people who got sick and for whom the state could determine vaccination status, 57 people hadn't been vaccinated against measles and 20 people had had at least one shot of the vaccine.

With the recent outbreak of measles originating from Disneyland, there's been no shortage of speculation, accusation and recrimination concerning why some people won't vaccinate their children.

flu shot, vaccine
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District

The national measles outbreak has state and local health officials concerned. 

Last month 102 people from 14 states were reported to have measles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of those cases was reported in Colorado and a majority of them are part of an outbreak linked to a California amusement park.  

That’s why state and local health officials are urging adults to get vaccinated and parents to inoculate their kids against the disease.

Most of the 92 cases of measles confirmed in California are among adults — more than 62 percent. Maybe they or their parents chose not to vaccinate, or maybe those people are allergic to one of the ingredients in the measles vaccine.

But it's also possible that a few of those adults happened to slip through the cracks when the measles vaccine first came to the public.

In 1962, children's book author Roald Dahl lost his oldest daughter, Olivia, to measles. She was 7 years old.

Twenty-six years later, Dahl wrote a letter to parents about what happened:

Carl Krawitt has watched his son, Rhett, now 6, fight leukemia for the past 4 1/2 years. For more than three of those years, Rhett has undergone round after round of chemotherapy. Last year he finished chemotherapy, and doctors say he is in remission.

Now, there's a new threat, one that the family should not have to worry about: measles.

The measles outbreak that started at Disneyland and one other California theme park is expanding, with 59 confirmed cases in patients ranging in age from 7 months to 70 years. The California Department of Public Health has linked 42 of these cases to people who visited Disneyland or Disney's California Adventure Park.

Initially, cases were linked to people who visited the parks in mid-December, but health officials now say that other people with measles were at the parks in January while infectious and also have spread the disease.

Although vaccines are among the safest, most effective ways to protect children from major communicable diseases, some parents still doubt this. As a result, some choose immunization schedules that defy science or refuse to vaccinate altogether.

There's been a lot of attention drawn to people who don't believe in vaccinating their children, but there are many more people who believe that vaccines are the best way to protect children from contagious disease. A recent poll shows just how concerned parents are about vaccines when it comes to putting their children in day care.

When essayist Eula Biss was pregnant with her son, she decided she wanted to do just a bit of research into vaccination. "I thought I would do a small amount of research to answer some questions that had come up for me," she tells NPR's Audie Cornish. "And the questions just got bigger the more I learned and the more I read."

The Trading Post in Paonia is the kind of place you might expect to meet people who don’t vaccinate their kids. There’s bulk quinoa on the shelves, local potatoes in baskets and all sorts of sugar and wheat free goodies for sale near the cash register. The whole place has a decidedly crunchy, alternative vibe, and that extends to medicine. The last time I went there, the first three people I talked to told me they didn’t vaccinate their children.

Flickr user El Alvi

Colorado has one of the country's highest rates of un or undervaccinated school children. And some school districts in Western Colorado have rates five times higher than the state average. The majority of those kids have personal belief exemptions, which allow parents to easily opt out of some or all vaccines.

A bill in the statehouse would try to change that by requiring parents to talk to a doctor or watch an online class before signing a personal belief exemption. But a senate committee cut those requirements out of the bill yesterday.