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CDC Director: 'Unfortunately, I'm Not Surprised' By Measles' Rise


The current measles outbreak may have begun in California, but it has spread to 14 states. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there are now more than 100 reported cases. Doctor Tom Frieden joined us to talk about the bad science that had a hand in this outbreak and the current numbers.

TOM FRIEDEN: More than 90 percent of our cases so far have been tied in some way to the outbreak that started at Disneyland in California. But we see infections - although largely in unvaccinated children - about 10 or 15 percent are in kids who were vaccinated because the vaccine is excellent, but it's not perfect.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about the spread of the idea that there's something wrong with vaccination - that it's linked to autism. That concern is usually attributed to a 1998 British study of just 12 children - a study that was later retracted. The author was stripped of his medical license. It's been debunked. But a year after that study in 1999 here in this country, the Public Health Service, the American Academy of Pediatrics and vaccine manufacturers announced that they were going to withdraw the very preservative in the vaccine that that debunked article had treated as the culprit. Was that a case of good scientists lending credence to bad science because bad science had gained some popular support?

FRIEDEN: Mark Twain said that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. And often what we have to do is make sure that we are not only beyond reproach, but if there's some concern that we're not certain of, take the precautionary principle and be even safer. But in the case of measles vaccine, study after study has shown that there are no long-term negative consequences.

SIEGEL: But was that gesture of saying that even though it's safe - the vaccine as it is currently preserved - we're going to change the preservative - were health authorities - public health officials effectively inadvertently fanning the flames of doubts about the vaccine?

FRIEDEN: We know that the vaccine works, but we also know that if parents don't take it, it's not going to work. So sometimes things have to be done to accommodate concerns or because there's some degree of uncertainty. But at this point, the science is quite clear. And something that I think many parents may not recognize - if you choose not to vaccinate your children, it's not only your children who might get sick but the baby across the street or the kid down the block who's had leukemia or an organ transplant.

SIEGEL: Given the attention that measles is now receiving, are you getting any sense of some increased rate of vaccination in places where vaccination has been avoided by a significant minority of people?

FRIEDEN: While we don't have definitive data yet, it does seem that now that people understand that measles is still with us, we're seeing an increased willingness, an increased vaccination rate. In fact, if you look at vaccination overall, 92 percent of our kids are up-to-date with measles vaccination. And of the other 8 percent, the vast majority are not in that small vocal group that's adamantly opposed, but people who didn't get around to it or had some concerns or who didn't think measles was a risk.

SIEGEL: In light of all this and given how long this discussion has been going on, are you surprised by the rise of measles in the U.S.?

FRIEDEN: Unfortunately, I'm not surprised because measles is so astonishingly infectious. Even being in the office of a doctor where a kid with measles was a couple hours ago can infect your child. The degree of infectivity of measles shows that we have to vaccinate - in fact, we use two doses of vaccine to get that effectiveness up 97 percent or higher.

FRIEDEN: So the vaccine works very well, and that's good because the virus is so infectious.

SIEGEL: Tom Frieden, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

FRIEDEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Doctor Tom Frieden who's the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC. He spoke to us from Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.