Measles again? Recent outbreaks & vaccination law in the United States

If you thought we eliminated measles in the U.S. but wonder why you keep hearing about it in the news, you’re not alone. Recent outbreaks of the disease at Disneyland in California and at a daycare center in Palatine, Illinois, have attracted wide media attention. There is concern about risk, of course, within the affected communities, but the reporting has also put the spotlight back on the debate about vaccination and immunization. Perhaps inevitably – we do have a presidential election next year – that debate has spilled over into the political arena.

Is your child vaccinated? Vaccination prevents smallpox – Chicago Department of Health. (Published between 1936 and 1941). Poster for Chicago Department of Health. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared measles eliminated in 2000, meaning the disease was no longer endemic. Things were quiet for a while, but beginning in 2008, the number of reported cases started to climb and, in 2014, the CDC reported a record number of cases, the greatest number since measles was declared eliminated in 2000. In January of this year, there were reported cases in 14 states.

Part of the problem with measles is the ease with which it can be transmitted, via travelers from countries with ongoing outbreaks, and from unvaccinated populations experiencing an outbreak. Why so many more cases in recent years? The CDC reports more measles cases than usual in some of the countries to which Americans often travel and/or more spreading of measles in U.S. communities with pockets of unvaccinated people.

Unvaccinated people? Aren’t there laws that govern vaccination and immunization in the United States? Yes, there are, but it isn’t a simple picture. There are federal, state and local laws that collectively cover a dizzying array of subject areas including immigration, scientific research, safety, record keeping and reporting requirements, agriculture, foreign relations and assistance, product liability, and insurance coverage. There are also agency-level regulations, through which the laws are implemented.

If you’re looking for answers but not familiar with the legal landscape, a good place to start is the very thorough FALQ page on U.S. vaccination law just published by the Reference specialists at the Law Library of Congress. It’s divided into two sections, one for the federal-level and one for state/local level help, and thoughtfully includes links to previous guides, like this one, on how to perform research with federal statutes and regulations. If you’re looking just for state vaccination requirements, a good place to start is the CDC’s Vaccines and Immunizations webpage.

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