Data released Monday from the Centers for Disease Control shows 102 confirmed new measles cases in the month of January this year. That's far and away a monthly record for the years since 2000, when the disease was officially declared eradicated. The majority of cases stem from an outbreak at Disneyland in California.
To put it another way, we've had about twice as many new measles cases in the past 31 days as we did in all of 2012.
Last year was a record year for measles, with 644 new cases confirmed in 2014 -- the highest in decades. If the California outbreak continues to spread, this year's totals could end up much higher.
From a public health standpoint, policymakers are in something of a bind. The impulse is to urge parents to vaccinate their children, as President Obama recently did. But when politicians get involved, the danger is that a public health issue becomes a political one. On Monday morning, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie tried to set himself apart from Obama's position by calling for "balance" on the vaccine debate, only to hastily walk back his statements hours later.
It's nigh impossible to change hearts and minds on vaccines; a recent study found that presenting vaccine skeptics with facts only reinforced their views. Over at The Upshot, political scientist Brendan Nyhan warns that "news articles focusing on an extreme and unrepresentative group of anti-vaccine parents and celebrities may cause others to wrongly infer that their views are mainstream." In reality, their numbers are small -- in California, for instance, only about 2.5 percent of kindergartners hold "personal belief exemptions" that allow them to opt out of state vaccine requirements.
Large outbreaks and big infection numbers, like what we're seeing in California, may scare some skeptical parents into holding their nose and getting their kids the required shots. Reporting out of California from my colleague Todd Frankel suggests this may already be happening.