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American cities have banned unvaccinated kids from schools and public spaces. They’ve issued summonses, threatened $2,000 fines, and curbed religious, philosophical, and moral exemptions. They’ve tried to stem the spread of misinformation on vaccines. They’ve begged. They’ve pleaded.
And yet, America is losing its war against measles.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday that there've been at least 971 measles cases so far in 2019, surpassing the greatest number of cases this far into the year since 1992, when 963 cases were reported through May. That year ended with 2,126 total cases.
The CDC warned that due to intense, ongoing outbreaks in New York City and nearby Rockland County for the past eight months, the country is on track to lose the “measles elimination status” it reached in 2000, when widespread vaccination campaigns succeeded in stopping continuous disease transmission for more than a year across the U.S.
That’s while some of most impacted cities have taken nearly every measure available to them to prevent more people from getting infected, aside from physically forcing vaccines on people.
In March, Rockland County blocked unvaccinated children from schools, parks, hospitals and other public places, though a judge overturned the emergency declaration in April. The county still quarantines anyone with measles, or people exposed to measles, with a penalty of $2,000 a day if someone doesn’t comply.
New York City, meanwhile, has issued at least 123 civil summonses to people who have refused to submit to the city’s order requiring residents of certain Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods to get their shots, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Those people could pay $1,000 if the summonses are upheld and they still haven’t gotten vaccinated. At least nine Jewish schools in the city have been shut down during the outbreak to prevent more kids from getting sick. In March, a Wisconsin man was even jailed after breaking an imposed measles quarantine so he could go to the gym.
At this point, health officials in five states, including New York, have warned eight people with measles that they might invoke a rarely-used government authority to prevent them from getting on planes, according to the Washington Post.
"We have the withholding of children from measles immunizations by parents in many parts of the country,” William Schaffner, an infectious-disease professor at Vanderbilt University, told the Washington Post. “This is not an access issue. These are middle-class populations with access to medical care. They’re withholding children from standard, routine pediatric healthcare.”
Cities and states have limited tools to wield control during an outbreak.
They can mandate vaccinations, fines, and shut down public places. They can quarantine people from work or school. They can curb the philosophical and moral exemptions used by some parents to skip the measles shots.
But, all of that hasn’t been enough to stop some of the most fervent anti-vaxxers from avoiding their kids’ necessary shots, underscoring just how powerful vaccine misinformation can be, particularly in insular communities. A study from George Washington University last year found Russian trolls on Twitter had posted far more vaccination content than the average user. Known troll accounts tweeted about vaccinations 22 more times than regular human users.
Plus, communities are dealing with one of the most contagious diseases known to man.
“Measles is preventable, and the way to end this outbreak is to ensure that all children and adults who can get vaccinated do get vaccinated,” said Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, said in a news release Thursday. “Again, I want to reassure parents that vaccines are safe; they do not cause autism. The greater danger is the disease the vaccination prevents.”
Cover: A nurse gives Michaella a measles, mumps and rubella virus vaccine made by Merck at the Utah County Health Department on April 29, 2019 in Provo, Utah. These were Michaella's first ever vaccinations. She asked that only her first name be used. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)