What Should Disney Do about the Measles Outbreak?

January 25, 2015, 9:32 PM · The measles outbreak that got its start at the Disneyland Resort has grown to more than 80 cases, with the latest involving a walk-on baseball coach at Santa Monica High School.

A reporter from a local public radio station interviewed me last week about the outbreak, asking what Disneyland should be doing about all of this. I replied that it was a unfair to be putting any responsibility for this on Disney. As "southern California'a family room," a place where tens of thousands of people congregate on any given day, Disneyland is one of the more likely places for an outbreak of a highly contagious disease to happen. People are calling this the "Disneyland outbreak" simply because that's where this one got its start, much as we name earthquakes for their epicenters and wildfires for the place where someone first saw the flames. But Disneyland's no more dangerous to visit today than any other public place in southern California or any other community to which the measles now have spread.

The Mighty Microscope
Maybe we need to go back through the Mighty Microscope again, this time to learn about vaccination.

As an employer, Disney has done what any responsible employer should do in this type of situation. It has seen that infected employees are treated, and that other employees at risk are isolated until they are immunized or the danger has passed.

Let's not forget, though, that this outbreak happened not because of some failure on Disney's part, but because of the failure of thousands of people across Southern California to get properly immunized and to immunize their children. Millions of Americans have chosen to ignore science on immunizations in favor of believing conspiracy theories and junk reports from talk shows and celebrities who haven't the slightest clue about medicine, biology, or anything other than getting themselves noticed. (You can imagine that this is where we cut to a shot of people over at SeaWorld nodding their heads in sympathetic frustration.)

The thing is, the Walt Disney Company used to be pretty darned good at not just educating people about things such as science, but getting people to buy in that they should get to know something about science. Before Disney's theme parks became solely focused on extending animation and comic book franchises, Disney's Imagineers did some pretty fun work with non-fiction themes. Attractions such as "Adventure Thru Inner Space" and "Body Wars" not only entertained us, they provided gentle lessons about chemistry, biology, and the human immune system. Seems like those are some lessons that we could use more public enthusiasm for these days.

Let's take a step into the Wayback Machine are revisit these now-closed Disney classics:

There have been more than 144,000 cases of preventable illness and more than 6,000 preventable deaths in the United States since 2007 due to people not getting immunized on schedule, according to one analysis of the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports. But I don't think that those numbers will motivate change from anyone who's already chosen to ignore the massive amount of data demonstrating the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Some people think they are, well, immune, from that sort of thing.

If we're going to get Americans vaccinated the way we once did in this country, we need to get people bought into science they way we once were. We need someone to do specifically for medical science what Neil deGrasse Tyson just tried to do with his reboot of Carl Sagan's Cosmos [affiliate link]. If cold statistics and physician lectures won't rekindle demand for better preventive medical care, perhaps we need a warmer, more entertaining approach.

Perhaps we need some Imagineering know-how right now. Disney doesn't have to do anything more than it has about this measles outbreak. But if Disney wants to show its civic mindfulness, what better time to charge its creative talent to come up with something that might inspire more Americans to do the right thing by themselves and their neighbors and to get vaccinated? As a Disney Legend once wrote, "one little spark of inspiration is at the heart of all creation."

Disney used to be great at creating those little sparks of inspiration. I'd betcha that, if it wanted to, Disney could start doing that again.

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Replies (12)

January 25, 2015 at 10:31 PM · Standing ovation from me!

This is the thing that bothers me about the Frozen expansion at EPCOT. EPCOT is the non fiction park. It is designed to show that you can both learn and have fun. With any hope, the Frozen ride will still show some of the sights and sounds of Norway.

January 26, 2015 at 6:19 AM · 6000 prventable deaths? That number seems too low to me, given the very high number of people who die from influenza each year.
January 26, 2015 at 6:27 AM · Honestly, I don't think Disney could address vaccination at EPCOT because the history before vaccination is so grim, it really isn't appropriate for small children. People do not understand how bad these diseases were in terms of death toll. Before vaccines the infant mortality rate was 20%. That means 1 in 5 babies died. In addition childhood mortality was another 20%. Think about that. Even if your child didn't die and neither did any of their siblings, 1 out of every 5 of their classmates died. What would the emotional impact of that be on your child? Could places like Disneyland even have existed before vaccines without an alarming risk of death? Most of these diseases are very contagious in addition to being very deadly. When Polio was rampant you took your life in your hands going to the swimming pool. Who wants to go back to that?????? Most of these diseases are not gone. 2.4 million people die worldwide each year from vaccine preventable diseases.

The man who started all this anti-vaccine nonsense was working for lawyers who represented people who wanted to sue drug companies and he faked his research. He lost his medical license over this.

Before I launch into this next part, I just want to mention that I have a PhD in Genetics and I am involved in ongoing research on the following topic. The most severe forms of Autism which have been linked to a cause are caused by changes in DNA during development. All babies have some changes in their DNA during development, but often no ill effects are seen. But when some specific areas of the DNA are changed, serious genetic disorders like Autism occur. The milder forms of Autism often occur in families where some other members of the family exhibit mild learning difficulties, seizures, anxiety disorders, and/or social difficulties that may or may not be over the threshold of an Autism spectrum disorder. (Some people go undiagnosed through their entire life and are just considered odd) In other words these forms are probably genetically inherited and some genes have been associated with Autism. This situation is also the case for intellectual disability, but not all people on the Autism spectrum have below average IQ and not all people with intellectual disabilities have Autism, but there is some overlap.

Please vaccinate yourselves and your children people.

Some people are not able to be vaccinated due to allergies. For others vaccines are not as effective for them because they take medicine for a chronic condition or have had an organ transplant (they must be on immune suppressants for the rest of their lives). Also children do not get their last booster shots for some vaccines until they are 4-5 years old. That is why we need herd immunity. You see suffering in the world and you want to do something about it? There are a lot of things that are difficult to eliminate like violence, discrimination, food insecurity etc. This is something easy you CAN do for team humanity, so please do it.

As a scientist, I'd love to see more science in Disney parks. The problem is that so many new things are learned every year that it is impossible to have cutting edge attractions. In college biology classes today most professors don't even use text books because in the time it takes them to be written and printed, they are out of date.

I noticed 2 things about that video. No one was in that ride. So something is wrong with it.
It has science terms in it and is hilariously retro, but I don't think it is the best way to teach people biology. Even when applying for scientific grants, scientists try to avoid technical terms whenever possible if we are applying to a panel with lay people on it. Even highly educated people just do not know the definitions of the technical terms if they are not scientists. In the ride they probably should not even mention Neutrophils, etc. in the opening. It kind of reinforces to people that scientists say a bunch of mumbo jumbo and it puts distance between the audience and the presenter. In the video they never explain what white blood cells are vs red, and why they would be attacking something. Atrium, spinal cord, and blood brain barrier are mentioned, with no explanation of what they are...For example, the blood brain barrier isn't a wall exactly, like it sounds like in the film, its more of a concept that helps describe why some medicines do not work on the cells in the brain because they can't get there. Less molecules can get to brain cells than other cells in the body because the cells on the surface of the brain pick up specific things and take them into the brain more often than in other areas where molecules sometimes flow in the way smoke spreads throughout a room from the corner someone is smoking in (passive diffusion).
What I'm saying is that video wasn't very educational and I think it would be much more educational if someone for example, explained active transport vs. passive diffusion with an example of something people are familiar with. That is often how I explain science concepts to non-scientists in class or just out in the world. I'm not trying to be overly critical here, but that film told you about as much about biology as Star Wars tells you about physics. It would be much better to explain science concepts to people in response to a question about something people observe in the world.

January 26, 2015 at 6:41 AM · Re: the Frozen ride

...don't hold your breath.

January 26, 2015 at 7:02 AM · Maybe now Disney can afford to turn on the hot water in its parks. I don't understand why in most bathrooms you can only wash your hands with cold water
January 26, 2015 at 10:05 AM · Since all public schools demand vaccination of school kids, teachers, and volunteers, Disney should require the vaccination of all theme park employees regardless of whether they interact with the public. Disneyland Resort did send home five employee during this measles scare. I doubt they did a resortwide sweep, because we would have heard about it.

You cite Neil deGrasse Tyson, yet we do have a Medical position in the Federal Government called the Surgeon General. Why haven't we heard anything from the new Surgeon General? The new Surgeon General said nothing about the measles or Ebola outbreak.

BTW, Neil deGrasse Tyson has a way of making controversial statements that makes me cringe. This should not occur for an esteemed science expert.

January 26, 2015 at 10:19 AM · I agree with Anthony about the non fiction part. That said Disney IP can be used to give the rides a wider audience, if done right. On the Frozen Epcot article I said that Mike and Sully would be perfect for an update to Energy Adventure because it combines the movie and the rides theme go together. Future World can use characters as hosts or narrators to tell us about innovations. The World Showcase is a little bit different. If IP can be used in relation to the country, I see nothing wrong with that. But they need to be an extension of countries, not replacements of whats there. Otherwise it might as well be at the Magic Kingdom. Epcot is the most unique park, but it still lacks E-ticket attractions. The World showcase needs more attractions, and Future World needs updating. Future World needs the most frequent updating of anything Disney does.

Back to the measles issue, the world has changed greatly since Disneyland opened. I think today we know much more about health and science, and it is a bigger part of our daily lives. I think that's why it has mostly disappeared from Disney parks. It's still alive to a certain extent at Epcot, but its no longer as fascinating or unique as it once was. That's why Epcot needs major updates every few years, because the "future" quickly becomes the present.

January 26, 2015 at 12:22 PM · Some parents are listening to quacks and hucksters who are dead set against vaccination. That's why measles is making a bit of a comeback.

Most people have been vaccinated, but if you're worried, get a booster shot. Also, hand washing and using sanitizers is never a bad idea, especially after playing games in those interactive queues.

January 26, 2015 at 8:34 PM · I am perfectly fine with Disney IP in EPCOT...as long as it is sensible. A good example is Turtle Talk with Crush. While it is very fun and entertaining, Crush does throw some Sea Turtle facts at the "little dudes". I see that whole pavillion working with a much better vision.

One of the interesting aspects of the Tony Baxter interview was that every EPCOT pavilion in Future World had their own "mascot". However, Figment is the only one that made it past the cutting room floor. Cartoon characters are fine as long as they make sense. As dumb as Universe of Energy might have become, it still teaches you SOMETHING.

I think Robert's point was that Disney should bring back attractions that teach AND entertain. They kind of ran away from this idea after building Animal Kingdom.

That is also why World Showcase is such a hidden gem. Most Americans do not leave the USA. World Showcase at least gives people a taste of different cultures. Even with all its booze, people are at least learning about time tested alcohol craftsmanship! It made me want to go to Italy, France, and Germany.

January 27, 2015 at 1:09 AM · Disney has a lot of recent characters that would be great for EPCOT. I don't know if Big Hero 6 characters are allowed to be in WDW attractions, but they would be perfect to teach kids about science. Go Go could teach kids about magnetism, Honey Lemon-chemistry, Wasabi -lasers, Baymax aspects health care, Hiro - circuits or something. Doc McSnuffins and Miles from Tomorrowland could host something for the 3-6 age range. The Inside Out characters would also probably be good for a biology related attraction. Having a dynamic, enthusiastic teacher is a great way to teach kids science. If their lesson is informed by real scientists I think IP teachers could be really helpful.

I think IP is ok in the World Showcase and educational with respect to art history. The art styles in Disney animated movies are often inspired by the art of a particular region. The art of a culture is tied to the political and cultural history of a region, so I think it would be cool to show the artwork that the animators used as inspiration, how it appears in the movie and talk about the difference between related styles and the time periods that they existed and why styles transitioned from one to the other. The animators do so much research for all of these movies and their field is art so they should teach us about it. It could also be animator focused- for example have a Bambi attraction in China and focus on Tyrus Wong's work that inspired the art direction for that movie and talk about the art of the Sung dynasty that inspired him.
January 27, 2015 at 5:41 AM · The biologist wrote a fabulous comment; well worth reading! To Anon Mouse, sadly, it is insanely easy to opt out of vaccinating kids, and still have them attend public schools. This is a practice that needs to go away across the country, and is one of the reasons we are seeing such widespread outbreaks. The only children who should be exempt are those who have been medically determined to be at risk, due to immune system weakness or a proven medical challenge. This "personal or moral" objection to vaccines is stupid and dangerous. The religious one is harder to get around, but my personal feeling is that if you have a religious objection to keeping your kids safe, then you are welcome to send them to a private religious school where the only people they can affect are their own kind.

As for the Surgeon General, I don't know why there hasn't been anything said about this outbreak, but he wasn't confirmed in his post until after the Ebola "outbreak."

One thing that gets lost in the shuffle seems to be that the idiots who (1) don't vaccinate their kids, and (2) bring possibly sick and infectious kids to Disneyland are risking the lives of a group that Disney takes pride in having at their parks: Make-A-Wish. These are people, usually children, who are most at risk if exposed to something as highly contagious as measles.

Bottom line: those who think they know more than reputable medical professionals are people who have never witnessed the misery and devastating consequences of preventable diseases. I was born before the MMR vaccine was available, and was likely never immunized (guess who's going for bloodworm to check that, and maybe get immunized?). I never had measles, but I did have mumps. I'm glad there was a polio vaccine by the time I was born. Those who make stupid comments about measles "not being that bad," or "it's only a rash for a couple of weeks" have clearly never seen a child die of pneumonia, suffer from encephalitis or blindness caused by the disease. All they know is crap put out by a dumb blonde bimbp Playboy bunny who bought into the aforementioned "research" published by a discredited (now former) doctor who made it all up. Your "personal liberty" (to quote a Fox News commentator) to make your children' medical decisions stops at your front door.

January 30, 2015 at 4:03 PM · I have to agree. When someone thinks they are smarter than everyone else, that makes them dumb.

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