A less-than-effective flu vaccine and a spike in measles cases have created concern and controversy for government health officials and members of Congress.
So far this year, 102 people in 14 states have developed measles. That puts the nation on pace to nearly double the 644 cases in 2014 – which were the most in more than 20 years. Most of the new cases stem from a December 2014 outbreak that began at Disneyland Park in Anaheim, Calif.
The measles outbreak has hit during a nasty flu season in which the seasonal vaccine is only 23 percent effective against the most common virus strain. It’s only 12 percent effective for seniors whose flu-related hospitalizations have skyrocketed.
In congressional hearing Tuesday, top-ranking health officials from the Obama administration tried to explain how measles could have made such a comeback after it was supposedly eliminated in the U.S. in 2000.
Lawmakers also wanted to know how health officials picked the wrong flu virus to include in this season’s vaccine formula, resulting in its low effectiveness. It’s the fourth time in the last 20 years that the annual vaccine wasn’t properly formulated to fight the season’s main dominant virus strain, officials said.
But as health officials urge Americans to get flu and measles vaccinations, their messaging has been muddied by the comments of several prominent Republicans.
During a recent visit to England, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said parents need to have “some measure of choice in things” when it comes to getting their children vaccinated. “That’s the balance the government has to decide,” said Christie, a possible 2016 presidential candidate.
After being soundly criticized for suggesting childhood vaccinations should be an optional safeguard, Christie issued a statement saying “there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” He also said the “balance” he had spoken of referred to different states having different requirements for childhood vaccinations.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, an ophthalmologist – an eye surgeon – faced similar criticism for arguing in a television interview that parents should have a choice whether to vaccinate their children.
“I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” said Paul, a likely Republican presidential contender.
All four federal health officials who testified at Tuesday’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said they knew of no vaccinations that caused “profound mental disorders.”
“Not the vaccines we’re using today,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Agree with my colleagues,” added Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Another potential presidential aspirant took to social media to wade in on the controversy. In a tweet, Hillary Clinton took a jab at Christie and Paul, noting “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest.”
Between 2001 and 2010, the U.S. reported a median of 60 measles cases a year, Schuchat said.
But that number began to spike when unvaccinated Americans and foreign visitors who traveled abroad became infected and brought the disease to the U.S. Officials said the measles strain that caused the Disney outbreak could have originated in any of 14 countries.
Americans foregoing measles vaccinations for personal and religious beliefs are increasing the likelihood of infection. But some experts suggest that phenomenon is overstated.
“The vast majority of parents vaccinate their kids against most of the recommended diseases on time. And yet there are some minor voices that get a lot of attention,” Schuchat said, referring to parents who refuse vaccinations.
Health officials face a different problem altogether with the flu. Because this season’s dominant H3N2 virus wasn’t used in the vaccine formula, it can potentially infect more people and cause more hospitalizations and deaths than in typical years.
The emergent H3N2 virus was first detected in March 2014. It became increasingly prominent in subsequent months.
Officials testified Tuesday that by the time it was clear that the current vaccine formula wasn’t an ideal match, it was too late to manufacture a new batch of more effective vaccine using the H3N2 strain.
The system of selecting flu strains for the seasonal vaccine is “archaic” and a “game of chance,” said subcommittee Vice Chairman David McKinley, R-W.Va.
Under questioning from McKinley, Schuchat said manufacturers couldn’t provide a new improved vaccine fast enough, nor in the volume needed to be useful on a national level.
“A highly effective vaccine with very few doses available may not be as good as a moderate- or low-efficacy vaccine and a lot of doses available,” Schuchat said.