Protecting your home and community

The Unnecessary Measles Outbreak


Photo of people in hazmat suitsLike a suspenseful science fiction flick, there is a looming epidemic threatening us. Although the outbreak is moving too slowly to make a good movie, it is spreading across the world, causing 158,000 deaths last year, and possibly more this year. And it’s a tragic epidemic, because it is entirely preventable.


The measles vaccine has been around for decades and is considered exceptionally safe. Although there are a relatively few individuals for whom the vaccine is not appropriate, there is a growing group of people, largely parents, that is putting itself and vulnerable populations at risk by refusing to vaccinate their children because of religious reasons or the mistaken belief that the vaccine is dangerous.


Because of these beliefs, people are getting sick. For example, fifty-eight people came down with measles last year in Brooklyn, and the incidence of cases all over the world is rising.


The current outbreak of twenty measles cases in New York City may have been made worse because hospital workers didn’t recognize the disease and quarantine the patients quickly enough, notes New York Times health care reporter Anemona Hartocollis. It is estimated that perhaps 600 people were exposed to the highly contagious virus. Unfortunately, the medical system is likely to become very aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease, given current trends.


map of nonmedical vaccine exemptionsIn 2013, eight out of ten (79%) in the United States who came down with the highly communicable illness were not vaccinated due to religious or philosophical beliefs; thirteen percent were ineligible, and the rest (8%) either missed opportunities, or had unknown reasons for being unvaccinated.


The growth of the incidence of measles due to religious or philosophical beliefs is not limited to the United States. Fraser Valley, an area east of Vancouver, Canada, has seen over one hundred cases, spread by children who attend a Christian school. As of March 22, most of the children at the school have still not been immunized, and the outbreak is spreading. A student at a nearby college has been diagnosed, leading to official warnings that the whole campus was at risk.


Image from interactive map of global infectious diseaseBelief that the vaccine is harmful is sweeping across Europe, and religious resistance to vaccination is slowing efforts in Africa and the Middle East. Adding to this burden is politics: the use of a public health doctor to identify the presence of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan has led to a backlash against vaccination across the Muslim world.


To see how measles is affecting countries around the world, the Council on Foreign Relations has created an Interactive Map of Vaccine-Preventable Outbreaks.


Why Would a Parent Fail to Protect a Child?

photo of a child with measles

Measles interrupts nutrition and reduces the immune status of a child


There is a belief among many parents, particularly in the developed world, that the measles vaccine is responsible for other illnesses, particularly autism. This belief persists despite decades of research demonstrating no connection, and the public admission of the doctor, who had published a paper on this subject, that he had invented the data. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author and infectious disease historian Laurie Garrett notes,

The legacy of the discredited research by MMR scare doctor Andrew Wakefield has been exposed by a map showing spikes in cases of preventable childhood diseases in areas across the globe where anti-vaccine campaigners are active.

Our data suggests that where Wakefield’s message has caught on, measles follows.


Libertarian and mainstream commentators alike have deprecated the anti-vaxxer trend, however, celebrities who advocate for this dangerous practice continue to get high visibility platforms. For example, actress Mayim Bialik of television show The Big Bang Theory, advocates against vaccination, and is being given the podium at National Science Teacher Association conference in Boston, which starts on April 3, 2014. This is an organization that claims that, “We’re dedicated to improving science instruction and increasing public awareness of science education.”


If you would like to tell the NSTA what you think about their choice of speakers, you can contact them here.


In an article targeted to parents, Mary McCoy, a clear-thinking writer for the website, has written a comprehensive piece called Protect Your Family Against Measles, about why it’s important for every child to get vaccinated for measles. She notes

Measles isn’t just a severe skin rash. Infections can lead to fever, diarrhea, encephalitis, pneumonia and even death. One in five young children who contract measles are hospitalized. It is extremely contagious, and according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is responsible for the deaths of 158,000 people worldwide each year. Those most at-risk for serious complications are infants, young children and people with compromised immune systems. [Emphasis the author]



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