On Wednesday, U.S. Representative Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) chaired a hearing in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to discuss the current nationwide measles outbreak and concerns about vaccine hesitancy.
As of Feb. 21, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 159 cases of measles in 10 states.
Before the hearing, DeGette said lawmakers will consider the need for new, stricter federal regulations regarding vaccine exemptions. She noted that Colorado's kindergarten MMR vaccination rate of 89 percent is among the lowest in the country. Colorado is one of 17 states that allow an exemption for personal beliefs, in addition to religious and medical exemptions.
The hearing included testimony from two top health officials: Dr. Nancy Messonnier with the Centers for Disease Control and Dr. Anthony Fauci with the National Institutes of Health.
Both agreed the spread of measles continues to be a public health concern in the United States, even though the disease was declared eliminated in the United States in the early 2000s. Outbreaks in multiple states in recent years have reignited concerns about "anti-vax" parents who chose not to vaccinate their children.
"Vaccine hesitancy is a result of the misunderstanding or the risk and seriousness of the disease combined with misinformation regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines," Messonnier said.
Fauci emphasized the need for communities to have vaccination rates of 95 percent to achieve "herd immunity" which is necessary to protect individuals who cannot be vaccinated.
"It’s a responsibility to the community," Fauci said, adding that infants don't receive their first MMR vaccination until they are 11-12 months old. "Those infants are vulnerable to measles if they get exposed, so it’s our responsibility to protect them."
Messonnier testified that lower rates of vaccination are found in communities of lower socioeconomic status, lower rates of insured people and rural areas.
She pointed out that in the wake of the recent measles outbreak in Clark County, Washington, more people in that county have sought out vaccinations.
"When faced with the real threat of measles, parents weigh that and realize it’s better to vaccinate," she said. "What we need to do is get those messages to parents before a measles outbreak."