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Measles and Millennials

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The U.S. has a large -- and largely preventable -- problem on its hands: measles. Or perhaps the problem isn’t measles so much as the irrational behavior that has enabled measles to proliferate in recent weeks. From Jan. 1 to Jan. 30, 102 cases of measles, in 14 states, were reported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with most of those cases tied to an outbreak that started at Disneyland. Compare that with a median of 60 reported measles cases per year between 2001 and 2010.

Source: CDC

The U.S. declared measles eliminated from the nation (though it still arrives from abroad) in 2000, thanks in part to a very effective vaccine. The recent outbreak seems due in part to the resistance of some Americans to using that very effective vaccine.

Perhaps even more troubling, young Americans seem especially likely to believe discredited assertions connecting vaccination to autism.

A YouGov poll of 1,000 American adults conducted last week found that 21 percent of millennials ages 18-29 thought early childhood vaccinations either definitely or probably could cause autism, compared with just 3 percent of those 65 or older. Forty-three percent of those under 30 thought parents should be able to decide whether to vaccinate their kids against childhood diseases, compared with 21 percent of those 65 or older.

Subsamples of the YouGov survey were small, with only 175 millennials and about 160 Americans age 65 or older responding to these questions. But a Pew Research Center survey conducted last August similarly found that 41 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds thought that parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their kids, compared with just 20 percent of those 65 or older.

Of course, millennials weren't alive when measles was widespread and have grown up amid misinformation about the effects of vaccination. (What’s the excuse of Chris Christie, the decidedly non-millennial governor of New Jersey, who fumbled the issue just today? Or Senator Rand Paul?)

Vilifying Vaccines

Those millennials -- and others -- doubtful about the importance of vaccination might do well to ponder the experience of author Roald Dahl, who, in 1962, lost a daughter, age 7, to measles encephalitis. "Today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs," Dahl wrote years later, is to "insist that their child is immunised against measles."

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To contact the author on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net