Lawmakers who called a hearing on Tuesday to ask what to do about this year’s disappointing flu vaccine got distracted by another virus: measles.
A measles outbreak traced to Disneyland has infected more than 100 people in multiple states. Health experts have said it’s driven by people who refuse to get vaccines — raising a loud and often shrill debate over whether parents should be forced to vaccinate their kids.
"Should parents have their children vaccinated?" was the very first question tossed out at the hearing, called by House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee chairman Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican.
“I think it is very, very clear that we have one of the most highly effective vaccines against any virus,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, answered. “To me, it’s really a slam dunk what the decision should be.”
Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s immunization center, agreed. “It’s important to remember that there are about 20 million measles cases around the world each year and so measles is literally a plane ride away,” she said.
Fauci, Schuchat and other officials had been called to testify about the flu vaccine which, unlike the measles vaccine, is not always terribly effective. It’s based on very old technology and flu is a mutation-prone virus, much more difficult to defend against than measles.
Federal health officials, academic institutions and private companies are working to make better flu vaccines and the goal is a flu vaccine that works against multiple strains.
"We're all frustrated," Murphy said. "We need to speed up this process."
Vaccine experts make a projection about which influenza viruses will be circulating in the coming season. They’re deciding right now which virus strains to look for next fall.
But last year, one of the main strains included in the vaccine had mutated slightly before the vaccine was even distributed, and that became the strain that is making the most people sick. CDC said the vaccine’s only about 23 percent effective.
It can be confusing for consumers, but Fauci, Schuchat and other experts agree the measles vaccine is and has been very effective, protecting 99 percent of people who get two doses.
Some politicians stepped into the debate but have tried to step right out again. Presidential hopeful Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, called it an issue of freedom.
“I think the parents should have some input. The state doesn’t own your children,” he said Monday.
After an outcry, Paul tweeted a picture of himself getting a hepatitis vaccine on Tuesday. "I think vaccines are one of the greatest medical breakthroughs that we have," Paul told CNBC. "I’m a big fan."