As of June 13, 2019, the United States has seen more than 1,000 reported cases of measles — the highest number in 27 years. The largest of these outbreaks occurred in New York City. At the Washington Post Live event “Transformers: Health” on June 11, experts discussed how best to address this growing crisis in a panel entitled, “Innovative Solutions for a Public Health Emergency.” The discussion, moderated by health reporter Lena Sun, featured Oxiris Barbot, MD, Health Commissioner for the City of New York; Nancy Messonnier, MD, Acting Director of the CDC’s Center for Preparedness and Response; and Peter Hotez, MD, Professor and Dean at Baylor College of Medicine.
Dr. Messonnier explained that although vaccine coverage in the United States is high, measles cases still occur when unvaccinated individuals travel abroad and become infected. If returning to communities with high vaccine coverage, the virus will not spread. However, this year, measles was brought into communities with low vaccination rates, which were then susceptible to an outbreak. Dr. Barbot described how this scenario played out in New York City. Although the overall public school vaccination rate is 99%, measles was introduced into a community with “isolated pockets” of lower vaccine coverage, creating “the perfect storm”. Dr. Hotez added that given the increasing numbers of people refusing to get vaccinated, the current outbreaks were “predicted and predictable.”
A common thread throughout the discussion was the importance of local engagement within affected communities. Dr. Barbot emphasized that she relies heavily on community partners for help in promoting vaccination. Highlighting the continued importance of “good, old-fashioned public health”, she described successful efforts in New York City to work with the Jewish Women’s Medical Association and to offer free in-home vaccinations. Dr. Messonnier reiterated this message, noting that parents are most likely to listen to their health care provider or other trusted members of their own community. She highlighted the importance of day-to-day conversations, saying that national visibility is great, but “in the end, it really is about local action”. She noted that the long-term goal is not just to stop the measles outbreaks, but to re-establish trust in the entire U.S. immunization program.
Dr. Messonnier, who is both a leader in public health and a mother, drove the point home: “I have kids myself, and they are vaccinated.”