A patient takes aim against measles. (Courtesy of ourcommunitynow.com)
A patient takes aim against measles. (Courtesy of ourcommunitynow.com)

The District has largely been spared from a measles outbreak sweeping across the U.S. that is sparking a verbal war between anti-vaccine activists and lawmakers, but the city’s top health officer isn’t taking any chances.

The D.C. Department of Health’s epidemiology team reported the city’s current measles vaccination (MMR) rate is 92% for all public, charter, private and parochial schools from preschool through 12th grade.

LaQuandra S. Nesbitt, director of the D.C. Department of Health, recently wrote to the city’s private and public school principals asking them to encourage parents who haven’t yet vaccinated their children to do so.

“It is critically important that we all play our part and institute the appropriate measures to prevent an outbreak in the District,” Nesbitt wrote in a letter to the school officials last month. “D.C. health monitors suspected cases of vaccine preventable diseases and works with health care providers to ensure rapid identification and care.”

In Maryland, four cases of measles have been reported, mainly in parts of Baltimore County.

More than 1,000 people nationwide have been diagnosed with measles this year — a 27-year high, according the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As a result, the U.S. could lose its measles “elimination status,” achieved in 2000 after vaccinations helped virtually eliminate the disease in the country.

Measles, a highly contagious virus, can be potentially deadly, especially in small children, but is largely preventable via immunization.

Nevertheless, a growing number of parents have objected to and been able to opt out of mandatory vaccination programs over the years, citing religious reasons and unproven links between vaccines and autism.

Recently, the anti-vaxx movement has gained numerous high-profile allies such as actress Jessica Biel, who said parents should be given a choice whether to vaccinate their children.

Required vaccination is one of the few issues that crosses party lines. President Trump, who in the past had been a skeptic of immunizations, said in April that people must be vaccinated, “no doubt about it.”

Outbreaks in close-knit communities accounted for 88% of all current cases. Of 44 cases directly imported from other countries, 34 were in U.S. residents traveling internationally, and most were not vaccinated.

According to the CDC, unvaccinated U.S. residents traveling internationally are at risk for acquiring measles and close-knit communities with low vaccination rates are at risk for sustained outbreaks.

On June 13, lawmakers in New York voted to eliminate religious exemptions for school vaccines for children amid an outbreak in New York City, mainly among orthodox Jewish communities.

The passing of the law sparked chaotic scenes in the Albany statehouse as lawmakers were heckled by anti-vaccination supporters.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed the bill into law only hours after it was passed, said in a statement: “The science is crystal-clear: Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe.”

California, Mississippi, West Virginia and Maine have also banned non-medical vaccine exemptions for schoolchildren. But the exemption is still in place in D.C. and 45 states.

“My children were vaccinated on time this year in keeping with medical science and research,” said Joy Freeman Coulbary, a District lawyer who has two children ages 3 and 4. “But I do think that more should be done to improve vaccines and antibiotics.”

In her letter, Nesbitt said people wanting more information should call 202-576-7130 or go to dchealth.dc.gov/service/measles.

“We value our partnership with schools, and we know that together we can keep our students, families and communities healthy and safe,” Nesbitt said.

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the...

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