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Analysis: In “The Panic Virus,” a book released last month that’s received extensive attention in the media, journalist Seth Mnookin investigates the anti-vaccine movement. He mentions a 2008 outbreak of measles in San Diego and writes that it cost $10 million to contain.
Mnookin, who aims to debunk the idea that vaccines cause autism, uses the outbreak and its cost to make a point about the dangers of diseases like measles that can spread when children aren’t vaccinated against them.
Mnookin repeated this assertion in a Jan. 5 interview on CNN:
There was a measles epidemic several years ago in California, in San Diego, that cost $10 million to contain, and resulted in a quarantine of dozens of children.
That meant that those parents then had to find some way to take care of those kids, either not go to work or pay for day care. So, even when you have a case like with that measles epidemic, where it’s true that children didn’t die, you had one infant that was hospitalized for a serious amount of time, and dozens of families that had to pay an enormous amount of money because of this.
Is it true? Could it really have cost $10 million to contain an outbreak of measles that ultimately only infected 12 children?
Here’s what happened, according to a CDC report:
In January 2008, a seven-year-old boy returned to San Diego from a trip to Switzerland. Within days, he developed a sore throat and fever, but still went to school.
Soon, doctors realized that he had the measles — the boy hadn’t been vaccinated against it — and the disease had spread to 11 other infants and young children. They included his siblings, children at his school and kids who’d been to his pediatrician’s office the same day as him. Parents of about 70 potentially exposed kids — all of whom hadn’t gotten the vaccine, either by choice or because the children were too young — voluntarily placed their children in quarantine at home.
The measles outbreak made the national news: The New York Times referred to it in a story about parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because of fears (which have been debunked by the medical establishment) that vaccines are dangerous.
It did cost money to investigate the measles cases, provide care and coordinate the voluntary quarantine. But the ultimate cost was actually about $179,000, including expenses to government health agencies, medical facilities, the families involved and local businesses that lost income from children who stayed home, according to an analysis provided by the county Health Department.
Mnookin agrees that the $10 million number is incorrect. After I contacted him last week, he published a post on his website acknowledging the error, which he said was “based on a public sector cost of $10,376 per case. I multiplied that figure by the 839 people who were exposed to the measles virus during the outbreak and not the 12 total infections.”
Since the actual cost of the outbreak is estimated at $179,000, not $10 million, the claim is false.
One more note: Last year, we examined a claim by actress Jenny McCarthy, one of the leading players in the anti-vaccine movement, about the number of autism cases in San Diego. Her claim was false.
If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.