The current measles outbreak in the United States is no joke. And, while it has not yet reached Alaska, 72 cases documented in Washington State, alongside 14 cases in Oregon (and at least one near-miss in Hawaii), prompted a January Alaska Public Health Advisory encouraging Alaskans “to be up-to-date with [Measles-Mumps-Rubella] MMR vaccination.”
That advisory came on the heels of another, issued in February of last year, warning of an in-state outbreak of mumps (there were over 200 confirmed cases in Alaska in 2018).”
Officials have traced this year’s outbreak in Washington to child who traveled from Ukraine to Clark County in January. As The Washington Post notes, more than “90 percent of cases were in children younger than 18, and people who were not immunized.”
Clark County officials identified 53 different public locations that have run the risk of exposure – including sports arenas, health-care facilities, retail stores, churches, schools, and, most importantly to Alaskans, airports.
Alaska Airlines offers nearly 40 flights between Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage and Sea-Tac every day; roughly the same between Fairbanks and Seattle, and another eight each day from Juneau.
The exposure is hardly limited there. As of April 26, 22 states have reported a combined 704 cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, making it the “highest number of cases reported nationwide since the disease was declared eliminated in this country in 2000.”
The current pace puts the 2019 outbreak on course to shatter the record set in 1994, when there were 963 confirmed cases. Already this year — in only five months — the numbers have soared past the 667 cases in 2014 and, for obvious reasons, threaten measles’ recognized status as an eliminated disease.
What makes measles so dangerous is its communicability. The virus takes up residence in the infected person’s nose and throat and is spread via coughing or sneezing (just in time for allergy season!). Once airborne, it can lie in wait for up to two hours — during which time it is so contagious that 90 percent of non-immunized people in the wrong place at the wrong time can become infected.
The bill reauthorizes the statewide immunization program in the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS), which purchases childhood vaccines and some adult vaccines for distribution statewide, and is funded by the state’s Vaccine Assessment Account through upfront fees from health plans and insurers.
The program assessed the costs of vaccines that it planned on purchasing the following year, and then used bulk purchasing to attain them at a 20 to 30 percent discounted rate before distributing them. It is set to expire January 1, 2021. SB37 would remedy that, DHSS Chief Medical Officer Lilly Lou told House Finance Tuesday afternoon, adding that doing so would be in the best interest of the State. The facts bolster her argument.
Vaccination coverage for children under the age of two, adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17, and adults 65 or older has markedly increased since 2015, most visibly noted via HPV vaccine rates among adolescents, with one cohort jumping from nine percent coverage in 2013 to 40 percent in 2017 (averaging all cohorts within HPV vaccinations, there has been a 90.5 percent increase spanning the same years).
By the end of 2018, it covered more than 330,000 Alaskans – nearly half the total state population.
“There are two other states that provide adult vaccine coverage – Vermont and Rhode Island,” Lou added Tuesday. “Alaska is the only one that provides the opportunity for uninsured adults to get covered.”
“Next to clean drinking water and good nutrition, vaccines have saved more lives than any other public health intervention,” Giessel touted in her sponsor statement. And, according to the Alaska Vaccine Assessment Report, 2017-2018, the program pays for itself, with revenues matching costs dollar for dollar.
“The program operates at no cost to the state,” Legislative Finance Director David Teal reiterated to House Finance. “With an open-ended appropriation from the insurers and providers into the fund, then they can increase the assessment, which increases the money in the fund, and it can be spent with no legislative action.”
However, despite the medical necessity, not everyone is sold. The anti-vaccination trend literally plaguing the Lower 48 has its adherents in Alaska.
Only five individuals testified during public comment on SB37. But two of them, both from Delta Junction, voiced their opposition.
“I oppose SB37 because vaccines cause autism and mortality in children,” Irina Obolentseva told the committee, claiming that unspecified evidence suggested the “vaccine will kill more children than it saves.” “We don’t know how children will react to certain vaccines. Not everybody has the same genetic predisposition to certain reactions to vaccines and one-size-fits-all is not a good approach in modern medicine.”
“There is an increase in chronic illness in children associated with vaccines and this is the reason I oppose SB37,” Anna Goncharova testified. “There are studies that show relation of the vaccines to many allergies, brain damage, autism, developmental delays, and much more…. Experts predict that by 2035 we will have one out of 32 kids to be autistic.”
Obolentseva’s claims track back to a 2016 pseudoscience documentary entitled “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,” which claims to link the MMR vaccine to rising autism diagnoses. The film is heavy on emotional appeals to win over viewers, but the central premise has been conclusively debunked.
At the center of the film (as well as its on-camera expert and director) is gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, one of 12 authors who published a study in 1998 in The Lancet proposing the link. In 2010, citing ethics violations, The Lancet retracted the study. Most of the researchers disavowed their own findings and Wakefield’s British medical license was revoked.
In short, the film is highly problematic for a variety of reasons, as The Washington Post went to great lengths to explain.
The correlation between an increase of autism and higher vaccination rates also does not establish causation. An increase of the former has also been blamed on genetically modified foods and, to highlight the fallacy, organic foods. In reality, most experts believe the rise in autism diagnoses is the result of awareness and changes in the condition’s diagnostic criteria.
Netflix, Amazon, and Youtube have all removed Vaxxed due to the film’s the glaring inaccuracies. Unfortunately, some still accept their Netflix queues as peer-reviewed research.
SB37 passed the Senate unanimously last month. House Finance closed public testimony and held the bill over. No date for further action has been scheduled.
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