Updated: Jan. 23, 2015
Somewhere in Orange County, Mary Poppins and Ariel the mermaid may be running a fever. The same could be true for her coworkers—any of the other 23,000 people (OK, or characters) who punch in for work at Disneyland every day. And the same could be true too for any one of the estimated 16 million people who will pour into the theme park this year.
The reason? Measles. The cause? This may not come entirely as a surprise: the anti-vaccine crowd.
Just when you think they’ve been run to ground, shamed into silence, and just when you can watch a whole evening of Jenny McCarthy co-hosting the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square and not hear her utter a word of unscientific nonsense, the anti-vaxxers come roaring back. Only three weeks into 2015 the year’s first stories are emerging about the latest victims of the nation’s declining vaccine rate. And this time, ground zero is the self-proclaimed Happiest Place on Earth, which is in danger of becoming the decidedly less consumer-friendly Most Expensive Disease Vector on Earth.
So far, according to epidemiologists, there are 59 cases of measles across California and 42 of the cases are believed to have been contracted at Disneyland. The outbreak has spread to five other states—which is to be expected when the place that is ground zero for any infection attracts visitors from all over the world. Of the first 20 Disneyland victims, 15 were unvaccinated. Concern about the infections has gotten so great that California State epidemiologist Gil Chavez warned the public that anyone who has not had the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine should avoid all California theme parks “for the time being.”
The Disneyland epidemic is not an aberration. In the past year, California had its highest measles caseload in two decades—66, with 23 of them in Orange County. The U.S. recorded 610 cases total in 2014, triple the number as recently as 2011. In the first half of last year, the CDC reported that 69% of the documented cases (200 out of 288) were among unvaccinated people.
It’s no coincidence, as TIME has reported, that the areas of the country with the highest vaccine refusal rates—Orange County; New York City; Columbus, Ohio; Silicon Valley—have higher rates of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, too. What gives the anti-vaccinators so much power to do so much harm is that once vaccine rates fall below 95%, herd immunity—the protection that a well-vaccinated community offers to the few people in its midst who must remain unvaccinated for legitimate medical reasons—starts to break down. In 2012, California was right at that baseline 95% vaccination rate for measles and whooping cough. It’s now at 92%.
Those small percentages can make huge differences. In 2003, a few provinces in northern Nigeria banned polio vaccines, when local religious leaders claimed the drops were designed to sterilize Muslim girls and transmit AIDS. Within three years, 20 previously polio-free countries recorded cases of the disease—all of them the Nigerian strain.
The reaction to the Disneyland epidemic and the anti-vaccine community responsible for it has been blistering. The Washington Post ran an extensive feature on the disgraced and disgraceful Dr. Andrew Wakefield, whose fraudulent and entirely retracted 1998 study birthed the antivaccine nonsense. A Los Angeles Times editorial laid the blame for current problem directly at the antivaxxers’ feet and made the story Tweetable with a succinct, 78-character indictment: “Disneyland measles outbreak spurred by ill-informed, anti-science stubbornness.”
American anti-vaxxers remain impervious not only to the public shaming, but to other epidemiological warning flags, like the ongoing whooping cough epidemic in California or last year’s outbreaks of measles in New York and mumps in Columbus. As the Disneyland outbreak continues to worsen, the reaction is likely to be more of the same—which is to say denial coupled with a lot of echo-chamber prattle about a bought-off media carrying water for big pharma, plus the usual scattering of glib Twitter code like #CDCWhistleblower, which purports to be final proof of the great vaccine coverup, but which is nothing of the kind.
Hashtag science is not real science, and conspiracy theories have nothing to do with facts. The problem is, children infected with measles—or polio or whooping cough or mumps—are indeed very real. In the age of vaccines, there ought to be no place they feel unsafe—least of all Disneyland.