“It certainly is incredibly frustrating and upsetting to the public health community that we may lose measles elimination status, because we do have a safe and effective vaccine,” Messonnier said.
Those two outbreaks have largely been among children in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community whose parents have refused to vaccinate them.
Twenty-nine other states have had measles outbreaks in the past 12 months, but those were much more short-lived than the ones in New York.
CDC plans on releasing a detailed statement next week about the country’s measles elimination status, according to Messonnier.
It also could have ramifications worldwide. Spiegel, a former senior official at the UN Agency for Refugees, said it could undermine longstanding US efforts to convince other countries to double down on vaccinating their citizens.
“If we are not able to take care of our own backyard, how can we tell others what to do?” he said.
Polio mistaken for a shirt
No one foresaw what would follow.
For those countries, economics and political upheaval were at play.
For the United States, it was Facebook and Twitter.
These parents tend to live in clusters, such as the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York, which helps encourage measles to spread.
While social media is a part of parents’ everyday lives, the ravages of vaccine-preventable diseases are in the distant past.
Schaffner said when he’s spoken to parent groups, there’s been considerable ignorance about even basic facts about infectious diseases.
“This is a true story. At one of these meetings I was talking about polio, and a mother asked me — and this is a complete quote — ‘Why are you suddenly talking about shirts?’ It took me a minute, but I realized she thought I was talking about polo shirts,” Schaffner said. “This was a college educated woman out in the business world and she hadn’t come across the concept of polio. She may be a bit of an outlier — but maybe not. I think she actually illuminates the problem.”
‘Not our finest hour’
Looking back, public health experts see lost opportunities for combating that problem.
While anti-vaxers were busy spreading their false propaganda, “the good guys,” as Schaffner calls them, failed to effectively communicate how dangerous diseases like measles can be.
Those “good guys,” he said, include groups such as the CDC as well as doctors’ groups.
“I think this was not our finest hour,” Schaffner said.
While anti-vaxers circulated videos on social media of mothers citing false claims about vaccines, public health groups failed to tell the stories of the ravages of diseases like measles.
Messonnier, the CDC doctor, said she and her colleagues have learned a lot of lessons about social media.
“I do think it caught us all a little flat-footed — how quickly the myths and misinformation spread,” she said. “Of course, I wish I had 20/20 hindsight and had figured this out a couple of years ago.”