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Scientist Recalls The 1988-90 Outbreak When 12,000 Angelenos Caught Measles

The MMR vaccine helped to eradicate measles in 2000 (Photo by Sherry Yates Young via Shutterstock)
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A disease researcher who worked tirelessly during the L.A. measles epidemic in the late '80s really isn't sure why everyone forgot about how horrible that was. Back in 1988, Kenn Fujioka was an epidemiology analyst in the L.A. County Health Department's Acute Communicable Disease Control unit, Zocalo Public Square reports. He and 20 others monitored diseases and investigated outbreaks. One disease that had a big showing then was measles—the same disease that's turning up again now after being pretty much eliminated in 2000. Between 1988 and 1990, there were 12,434 cases of measles in SoCal. Of those, 75 died.

Fujioka writes that when he began that job in '87, measles wasn't a big deal, and definitely not like it was in the '60s. However, in June of 1988, measles was showing up among children in low-income communities that had, for some reason, stopped vaccinating. Fujioka and his colleagues worked, notably without today's technology, to investigate, quarantine, educate and vaccinate. In L.A. County, over 600,000 doses of the MMR vaccine were used. This is also how the modern vaccination schedule—the one that gives young kids a second dose of the vaccine between ages 4 and 6—came about.

Finally, in 1995, the number of measles cases hit a low. In 2000, measles was eradicated. That is, of course, until anti-vaccination sentiment led to a lapse in vaccination again. This time, it's children in high-income families who are dodging the vaccine, oftentimes because their parents sign a personal belief waiver to get out of it. Los Angeles' Westside has a higher number of parents who have signed that form.

As Fujioka writes:

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We need to find ways to remember better. It should not take having a family member die from measles-induced encephalitis to brand in our minds the effect this virus can have. Public health agencies continue to devote money and time to delivering messages on vaccination, but they are useless unless everyone takes them to heart. Back in the unit, we used to talk about the difficulty of reaching that last group of people reluctant to vaccinate. Our saying: "90 percent of the budget goes to reaching the last one percent."

Fujioka is now the district manager of the San Gabriel Valley Vector Control District.