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PD Editorial: Governor, ask the experts about measles

More cases of measles have been reported in the United States so far this year than in the past four years combined.

In fact, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the 981 measles cases reported through the end of May exceed the total for any full year since 1992.

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases in the world, and it can be fatal.

The only effective defense is widespread vaccination, but too many parents have been taken in by misinformation about childhood vaccinations for measles and other communicable diseases.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom's ill-advised weekend comments about the state's public health professionals will only make it harder to end this needless outbreak.

Asked about pending legislation to close a loophole in California's vaccination requirements, Newsom told reporters: “I like doctor-patient relationships, bureaucratic relationships are more challenging for me … I don't want someone that the governor of California appointed to make a decision for my family.”

Newsom's comments, predictably, are being spread by anti-vaccine activists.

And, as he has after other shoot-from-the-lip statements, the governor tried to walk back his comments. On Monday, he emphasized that his own children have been immunized and said, “The question is around abuse of exemptions, the question is how best to address that issue.”

In California, the most common abuse is doctors peddling medical exemptions - sometimes on a cash basis via internet advertising.

One good way to curb that abuse is to ensure that medical exemptions - which have more than tripled since “personal belief” exemptions were eliminated in 2016 - are legitimate.

To that end, state Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician, is sponsoring legislation that would require the California Department of Public Health to review medical exemptions to ensure that the underlying condition meets criteria set by the CDC.

Pan's bill, SB 276, cleared the state Senate and must still be approved by the Assembly.

Measles was once common in the United States, peaking in 1958 with 763,000 reported cases and 552 deaths. The numbers declined sharply after a vaccine was developed in the early 1960s, and measles was eradicated in the U.S. in 2000 - one of the great public health success stories of the 20th century.

As vaccination rates declined in the past decade, measles returned. So did other contagious diseases, including chicken pox, pertussis and mumps.

The vaccines are safe, proven and effective. But conspiracy theories and out-and-out falsehoods have become so pervasive that the World Health Organization now lists “vaccine hesitancy” among the Top 10 threats to global health.

Among the frequently repeated myths is that payments from a federal vaccine injury fund prove that vaccines are unsafe. If you look at the numbers, you will see that side effects are quite rare: Between 2006 and 2016, the fund settled 3,626 claims - one for every million doses of vaccines distributed in the United States.

A small fraction of the population cannot be vaccinated because they're too young or suffer from certain auto-immune diseases. But if enough of the population is vaccinated, a single case won't become an outbreak. That's known as herd immunity. For measles, the rate is about 95%.

Half of California's 58 counties have vaccination rates below 95%, and the state recently reported its 47th measles case of the year.

State public health officials estimate about 40% of medical exemptions granted since 2016 would have been rejected under the standard in Pan's legislation - significantly increasing California's herd immunity and reducing the threat of measles and other preventable diseases.

Newsom met earlier this year with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a leader of the anti-vaccine movement. Before the outbreak spreads further, he needs to start listening to the professionals in California's public health department.

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