With more than 70 cases across six states and Mexico, public health experts take aim at parents who don't vaccinate

By Alexandra Zaslow
Updated January 23, 2015 04:15 PM
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As the measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in December continues to spread, public health experts are taking aim at parents who don’t vaccinate their kids.

With now 70 confirmed cases across six states and Mexico, experts say a lack of vaccination is to blame for the current outbreak.

“We have a disease that is preventable, so why should children have to suffer?” says Dr. Paul Offit, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

But Offit believes the Disneyland outbreak may be a tipping point for some parents.

“I think these under-vaccinated communities now see this big measles epidemic at Disneyland and are getting vaccinated. People are more compelled by their fear than their reason.”

In 2000, measles was declared eradicated in the United States because it wasn’t spreading routinely like colds or flu. Only a few dozen measles cases were diagnosed each year for many years – mostly by travelers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In recent years, however, the disease has made a comeback, with 644 diagnosed cases last year, according to the CDC.

Dr. Jennifer Lighter Fisher, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Medical Center, spoke to PEOPLE about the outbreak and how to prevent the disease from spreading further.

How do you get the measles?
Measles is a virus that is transmitted in the air when you’re next to someone that has the measles virus and is coughing or sneezing. It’s one of the most highly contagious diseases around in humans.

It’s most contagious through airborne transmission, but the disease can also live on surfaces for about two hours. We don’t have any treatment or cure for measles, so if someone gets it, it’s not like they can take a medicine that will treat it and can become very sick. The disease usually lasts one to two weeks and is contagious four days before the rash and about four days after the rash.

What do you think is the cause of this outbreak?
The most likely [first] case could have been a traveler from a country that did not receive the measles vaccine or it could be someone from the United States that was unvaccinated or under-vaccinated – those who didn’t receive two doses.

How much protection does vaccination provide?
A large percentage of these [measles] cases are children less than one year old, who aren’t able to get the vaccine yet. Then a portion have been individuals who have declined to get the vaccine. About 85% of people with the first dose and 98-99% of people who got the second dose vaccine will be protected.

What do you think parents can do to best protect their kids and themselves?
People should get vaccinated for these preventable illnesses. For those who don’t get vaccinated, they are putting the most vulnerable people at risk in the population.

For example, very young children cannot get vaccinated and so those who choose to not get vaccinated are putting other people at risk. It’s very important that a population as a whole gets vaccinated to protect the most vulnerable.

How many of the kids that had the vaccination still got measles?
There may be children who haven’t received their second dose yet, so I’d suspect that those would be the ones to have a theoretic risk. I’m pretty confident that the majority of people who have gotten measles were unvaccinated. It’s an irresponsible choice to not get your kids vaccinated, putting them at risk of a deadly and preventable disease.

Reporting by CHRISTINE PELISEK