President Barack Obama urged American parents to get their children fully vaccinated on Sunday, amid growing concerns over an outbreak of measles that started at Disneyland in California and is now spreading across the country.
“I understand that there are families that, in some cases, are concerned about the effect of vaccinations,” Obama said in a pre-Super Bowl interview with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie on Sunday. “The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not.”
“You should get your kids vaccinated,” he added. “It’s good for them and the challenge you have is if you have a certain group of kids who don’t get vaccinated, and if it grows large enough that a percentage of the population doesn’t get vaccinated and they’re the folks who can’t get vaccinated, small infants, for example … they suddenly become much more vulnerable.”
Measles is a highly infectious respiratory virus whose symptoms include high fever, runny nose, cough, red and/or watery eyes, and a telltale red rash. There is no specific treatment for measles; supportive care is used to help relieve symptoms and address complications such as bacterial infections, but there are no antivirals for the disease. While most people recover from measles within a few weeks, in some cases the disease can lead to severe complications including inflammation of the brain, pneumonia and death.
Thanks to the widespread use of highly effective measles vaccination, the disease was effectively eliminated in the United States in 2000. Yet, according to public health officials, a small — but growing — number of individuals are refusing vaccinations for their children, which led to a record year for measles cases in 2014. This trend of vaccination skepticism — largely based on unfounded and discredited anti-vaccine beliefs — now threatens to undo much of our country’s progress against vaccine-preventable diseases.
“I just want people to know the facts and science and the information,” said President Obama. “And the fact is that a major success of our civilization is our ability to prevent disease that in the past have devastated folks. And measles is preventable.”
Before the first measles vaccination program started in 1963, about 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States. Of those people, 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 4,000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling) from measles. In the current outbreak, about one in four cases has required hospitalization.
On Sunday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden warned that the growing number of unvaccinated people could result in a “very large” outbreak if the problem isn’t brought under control. According to the CDC, at least 102 cases of measles in 14 states have been confirmed since the beginning of January. Most of those cases are linked to an outbreak that started at Disneyland in California.
Meanwhile, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie today walked back comments he made about vaccinations earlier in the day. While on a visit to the U.K., Christie jumped into the vaccine debate and said he believes U.S. government must “balance” public health interests with parental choice.
While Christie said his own children had been vaccinated, he added: “I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” After public backlash, Christie’s office released a statement saying that “the Governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated.”