Karen Smith, director of the California Department of Public Health, gave the ninth annual Susan B. Meister Lecture in Child Health Policy on Thursday in light of the measles outbreak last December at Disneyland. The lecture, titled “The Power of the Public Eye: Disneyland, Measles, and Public Policy,” was held in Kahn Auditorium at the Biomedical Science Research Building.

The lecture is hosted by the University’s Child Health Evaluation and Research Unit, and features talks on child health topics. Meister is the founding chair of the Board of Advisors for CHEAR, an interdisciplinary research unit bringing members from different fields together — such as pediatrics, pharmacy, business, social work, dentistry and law — to address current child health issues.

Smith, a University alum, said “herd immunity” is the main reason for getting people vaccinated. Herd immunity refers to a phenomenon when most of a community is vaccinated and immunized against a contagious disease, even community members who are not able to get vaccinated or have compromised immune systems are protected against the disease.

Herd immunity, as its name suggests, is only effective when most community members are vaccinated. Unfortunately, Smith said, the anti-vaccination sentiment has spread substantially and has become increasingly present in California since 2010, when a booster pertussis (whooping cough) vaccination shot became mandatory for seventh graders.

Smith said the anti-vaccination sentiment is not evenly distributed throughout the state — some communities have more anti-vaxxers than others.

“(The anti-vaxxers) were generally fairly well-off Caucasian families,” Smith said.

The increasing number of unvaccinated people increases risk for outbreaks like the recent measles outbreak at Disneyland.  The measles outbreak is an example of this pattern. Though the disease was eradicated in the U.S. in 2000, the disease remains widespread in many countries outside of North and South America.

Because Disneyland attracts about 24 million visitors per year, many of whom hail from countries where measles is still prevalent, the amusement park has been a prime spot for contagious diseases. Another measles outbreak that originated from Disneyland in 1982.

Smith also addressed the link between vaccination and autism, saying there is no causal link in spite of anti-vaxxers’ arguments. In 1998, former British physician Andrew Wakefield published a study linking autism with measles, mumps and rubella vaccines, but in 2010, the study was retracted by the publishing journal because the study used false data to reach its conclusion.

In 1975, one out of 5,000 people were diagnosed with autism, but in 2009, one in 110 were. Smith said the increase is due to the change in the diagnosis criteria and raised awareness of the condition, not vaccinations. Smith cited the 1988 movie “Rain Man,” starring Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant, as one of the reasons autism gained recognition in the society, for both the public and physicians.

“(Numbers) really took off when the movie ‘Rain Man’ came out,” Smith said. “It changed the practice. Even physicians recognized the changes in the diagnosis criteria.”

Finally, Smith rebuked anti-vaxxers argument that parents have the right to choose whether they vaccinate their children. Smith said not vaccinating the children will put other children who cannot get vaccinated at risk.

“The society has the duty to protect (children who cannot get vaccinated) from people who could be vaccinated but choose not to,” she said. 

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