Scientists Feverishly Defend Vaccines after Measles Outbreak

1321321They say Disneyland is the “happiest place on earth”. But over the last month, the theme park has become the epicenter of a major measles outbreak.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 121 Americans across 17 states contracted measles between January 1 and February 6. At least 103 cases (or 85%) are linked to a California woman who became contagious at Disneyland. She later spread the virus further by traveling to Washington state.

The outbreak has raised concerns across the US. After all, the CDC describes measles—which can cause pneumonia and encephalitis—as “the most deadly of all childhood rash/fever illness”. To make matters worse, the virus is highly contagious. Transmitted via coughing and sneezing, it can survive for up to 2 hours on surfaces and infect 90% of unvaccinated people nearby. As a result, an estimated 20 million people contract measles worldwide every year.

In the US, however, the disease has become relatively rare. For over 40 years, public health officials have administered a 97% effective Mumps, Measles, Rubella (MMR) vaccine, mostly to children and college students. Thus, the average number of measles cases has dropped to 62 per year (from 2001 – 2011).

But here’s a bitter pill to swallow: the trend appears to be reversing. A rumor linking vaccines and autism, spread by people like Jenny McCarthy and discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield, has triggered a growing anti-vaccination movement in the US. This is producing “large pockets of unvaccinated children through whom epidemics can spread further”. In fact, in 2014, 79% of US measles cases involving those unvaccinated due to “personal belief”.

This “anti-vaxx” movement has scientists in a fever pitch. Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, Chief of Infectious Disease with Public Health Ontario, says “There is absolutely no evidence at all” that vaccines cause autism. Dr. Anne Schuchat, Director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, adds “This is not a problem with the measles vaccine…This is a problem of the measles vaccine not being used“. Indeed, “The anti-vaccine movement has turned this public health victory into defeat”.

Still, perhaps some good can come from the latest measles outbreak. In California, for example, parents are waking up to the danger of the anti-vaxx movement and are “pushing back“. This has prompted certain schools to send unvaccinated children home. In other states, like Mississippi and West Virginia, governments have banned parents from refusing vaccinations for their children on philosophical/religious grounds.

To learn more about the measles outbreak, or about the MMR vaccination, please contact our partners, Healthy Lifestyle Choices, the Virginia Association of Free Clinics, and the International Red Cross.


Flickr photo credit: Evan Long 

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