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A new study looks at what happens after the return of vaccine preventable diseases. Getty Images
  • New research from Drexel University finds that vaccine preventable diseases are on the rise in the U.S. including hepatitis A and B, flu, measles, and whooping cough.
  • With the rise of these preventable diseases, legislatures are trying to close loopholes to encourage vaccination.
  • Last month the U.S. nearly lost its measles elimination status that has held since 2000.

Last month, the United States came shockingly close to losing its measles elimination status, an achievement the country reached in 2000 after a widely successful vaccination program.

With 1,249 cases this year, this is the most number of measles cases since 1992.

But measles isn’t the only vaccine preventable disease (VPD) being fueled by the anti-vaccination movement. Other diseases including whooping cough have also become more common.

New research from Drexel University shows that when VPDs increased in the United States — including hepatitis A and B, flu, measles, and whooping cough — there was also an uptick in state legislation aimed at increasing childhood vaccination rates, especially in those areas where the outbreaks occurred.

The surprising reemergence of measles and other diseases can be attributed to the rise of the anti-vaccination movement in which groups of people refuse to be vaccinated or have their children vaccinated either out of fear, personal beliefs, or misinformation.

While overall U.S. vaccination rates remain high, pockets of unvaccinated people drastically increase the likelihood of more outbreaks.

In some areas, parents were able to claim they had a personal or religious belief exemption, which allowed their child to go to public school without being vaccinated.

As diseases have made a comeback, many local legislatures are looking to close loopholes to encourage vaccination.

“When there was more disease in a given state, there was more pro-vaccination legislation being proposed,” lead author Neal Goldstein, PhD, an assistant research professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health, told Healthline.

“We hypothesize the mechanism is one where vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks triggers media coverage and subsequent advocacy efforts to improve vaccination,” he said.

Goldstein added that overuse of exemptions — including for personal or religious beliefs — has been a huge contributing factor behind the low childhood vaccination rates in certain areas.

As a result, many legislators who support vaccines have cracked down on the use of nonmedical exemptions with hopes of boosting vaccination rates.

The researchers evaluated state-level data on 12 different childhood VPDs reported between 2010 to 2016. They then followed up with state legislatures for additional information about the bills introduced between 2011 and 2017 — specifically, which laws removed vaccine exemptions and which supported the vaccinations.

The team found that each state reported about 25 VPDs, like measles or whooping cough, per 100,000 people per year, with activity varying from year to year.

Between 2011 and 2017, a total of 175 bills were proposed — 53 percent loosening the restrictions around vaccine exemption requirements and 47 percent increasing exemption restrictions.

In areas where the frequency of VPDs increased, more laws were introduced to restrict vaccine exemptions.

For example, this year’s measles outbreak in New York drove state legislatures to remove all nonmedical exemptions in four Brooklyn zip codes, meaning people living or working in those areas needed to be vaccinated. Those who refused would face a $1,000 fine.

The move was a controversial one, but ultimately brought the fast-moving outbreak to a halt.

“Results suggest that state legislators may respond to actionable health concerns and introduce bills to decrease the use of nonmedical vaccine exemptions. This is promising in light of increasing vaccine hesitancy and misinformation about childhood vaccinations,” the study states.

In order for a community to prevent dangerous diseases from spreading, nearly 95 percent of the population must be immunized — a concept called herd immunity.

Herd immunity creates a protective barrier that stops contagious diseases from moving about a community.

This herd immunity protects not only children who are very vulnerable to these infections, but other at-risk individuals as well, like pregnant women, people receiving cancer treatment, or infants too young to be vaccinated.

“Vaccines are not just to help our own children, but also to provide herd immunity for children and adults who have legitimate medical problems that prevent them from getting vaccines — like kids that have had a transplant and are immunocompromised and can’t receive live virus vaccines,” said Dr. Gina Posner, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center.

Immunization is the most important health intervention we have for children, according to Dr. Michael Grosso, the chief medical officer and chair of pediatrics at Northwell Health’s Huntington Hospital.

Before vaccines, millions of children died or experienced serious complications from diseases that are now entirely preventable.

“There are so many children who live to adulthood thanks to vaccinations; a look at the tombstones in old cemeteries will prove that children used to die of diseases that we can now prevent with vaccines,” said Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and vice chair of pediatrics at Providence St. John’s Health Center.

Just because we haven’t seen many diseases run wild in years, thanks to the increase in available vaccinations, doesn’t mean the threat no longer exists.

“As vaccine preventable conditions disappear from everyday experience, it becomes more difficult for parents to see that the benefit of childhood vaccines continue to exceed their risk by a wide margin,” Grosso said.

As VPDs increase, however, so does media coverage, public awareness, and — finally — legislative response prompting people to get their children vaccinated.

“The current study, in fact, illustrates that unfortunately it seems to take the occurrence of serious outbreaks for a society to mobilize the resources necessary to tip the balance toward immunization,” Grosso said.

New research from Drexel University found that when vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs) increased in the United States, there was also an uptick in state legislation aimed at increasing childhood vaccination rates, especially in those areas where the outbreaks occurred.

The findings suggest VPD outbreaks spark media coverage and public awareness which, in turn, drives legislators to introduce pro-vaccine bills.