Why was a measles outbreak spiraling out of control from Disneyland, developing into the worst outbreak in the nation in 15 years?
The answer was available in the Los Angeles Times’ reporting: declining vaccination rates.
By using interactive tools and maps, Times reporters gave readers a detailed look at how falling vaccination rates were contributing to the outbreak and some of the locations with the lowest vaccination rates were in wealthy neighborhoods along the coast and in the mountains. One interactive map and database showed vaccination rates at preschools and childcare centers.
What did the data show? Some preschools had records of extremely low measles vaccination rates. The YWCA of Santa Monica? 51%. Manhattan Beach Nursery School reported a 36% measles vaccination rate. (Measles vaccination rates generally need to be higher than 95% to be effective.)
Giving readers access to annually reported vaccination data helped readers engage with this public policy dilemma like never before. The coverage prompted many parents to research their schools’ vaccination rates and push for stronger enforcement; some parents began to pass over preschools with low vaccination rates. In Sacramento, lawmakers began drafting legislation to require more schoolchildren to get vaccines as a condition of school entry.
The Times was way ahead of the story. Months before the outbreak hit, The Times published a story on the decline in the vaccination rate and included a database on the percentage of kindergartners exempted from vaccines due to a parent’s personal beliefs, which was later updated as new data came in. Just as the measles outbreak was announced, The Times published a chart showing the decline in kindergarten immunization rates for measles in the last 15 years.
And as the outbreak progressed, The Times stayed ahead. We wrote about how the measles vaccine has limits (even the vaccinated are at risk of contracting illness), how younger doctors were missing signs of disease (because, ironically, vaccine rates were so effective in decades past that so many young doctors had never seen measles before), how schools were failing to follow up on children who weren’t caught up with their shots, and how adults were a major contributor to the outbreak’s spread, showing a need for better monitoring them.