CLARK COUNTY, Washington — The United States is currently home to six ongoing measles outbreaks. But with 70 confirmed cases, Clark County, Washington in particular, has gotten a lot of attention. It’s quickly become an example of what can happen when parents don’t vaccinate their children. But even in Clark County, the spread of this highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease hasn’t been enough to change everyone’s minds about vaccines.
Washington State Sen. Lynda Wilson told VICE News during a recent interview that she believes the measles vaccine has caused more harm than the disease itself — a statement that has been debunked by multiple peer-reviewed studies, including a massive study published this week.
“People that got the measles, there have been very few deaths. There have been more reactions to the measles vaccine,” Wilson said. She hasn’t actively reached out to any scientists or doctors to verify her opinion on the matter, saying, “I'm kind of busy up here, and so I'm just dealing with what I'm getting from my constituents.”
The measles is a nasty disease that can lead to serious complications, including swelling of the brain and pneumonia. It also kills around one or two children out of every 1,000 infected. That’s why scientists recommend the vaccine, which is both safe and effective. But right now, Clark County has an unusually low vaccination rate. As of December, just 81 percent of Clark County school children age 1-5 had received one dose of the MMR vaccine, which covers the measles, the mumps and rubella. The national average is 91 percent.
Wilson’s views on vaccines could have an impact on upcoming legislation. A proposed bill would eliminate Washington’s “philosophical” vaccine exemption, and Sen. Wilson has already said she plans to vote to keep the non-medical exemption.
Wilson, who vaccinated her own children when they were young, said she doesn’t think parents should be required to do so with their own kids — at least not American parents.
“The cases are coming from out of the country,” she said. “So, you know, maybe what we should do is start thinking about requiring vaccinations if you're coming into our country. Maybe they should be vaccinated instead of requiring all of our people to be vaccinated.”
The CDC says that the current measles outbreaks are linked to travelers. But there’s little evidence to suggest that vaccinating visitors to the United States would be effective. That’s because the MMR vaccine is only 93 percent protective after a single dose, so people who are vaccinated can still get sick. That’s why scientists say it’s important for communities to reach a certain vaccination rate — a concept called “herd immunity.” When a high percentage of individuals in a community are vaccinated, that limits the spread of disease and helps prevent those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons from becoming sick. In short, a population that’s highly vaccinated protects the community’s most vulnerable.
“Measles continues to exist in other countries and within the United States,” a spokesperson for Clark County Public Health told VICE News. “As long as measles is present elsewhere, it’s only a plane, car, train or boat ride away from our community and will continue to be a risk for our community or any community with large unvaccinated populations.”
Wilson said the current outbreak is under control. Moreover, she suggested that the people who were infected will benefit from the experience. “We didn't have any deaths, and we didn't have any hospital stays. So I don't know that it’s unacceptable,” she said. “I mean, now these people have full immunity for the rest of their lives.”
VICE News went to Washington state to see how the measles outbreak is impacting a parent, a pediatrician, and a legislator.
This segment originally aired March 6, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.