In August, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report revealing more than 41,000 Europeans contracted measles during the first half of 2018 and at least 37 have died as a direct result of the disease in the worst outbreak to hit the continent in years – which IFLScience covered at the time. Now, experts tell NBC, the United States should probably start preparing for the same.
In a population of a little more than 742 million, 41,000 might not sound like a lot but it highlights a disturbing trend. To put it into perspective, there were just 5,273 cases of measles in Europe during the whole of 2016. This means there has been a jump of more than 700 percent in just two years – and that's not even taking into consideration the second half of the year.
The reason why is not surprising but it is depressing, and it is exactly why the US should be worried.
The anti-vaxxer movement has been gaining a lot of steam in recent years, receiving endorsements from politicians both sides of the Atlantic. The myth that vaccines cause autism was first propagated by the now-disgraced former doctor (struck off the medical register by the General Medical Council) and Rusty Razor Pseudoscience award-winner Andrew Wakefield in the 1990s and has been thoroughly debunked multiple times since. Still, it refuses to go away.
"The anti-vaccine groups have made very strategic use of the internet and social media," Peter Hotez, director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine, told NBC.
"It’s estimated that there are more than 400 anti-vaccine websites now, and when you put ‘vaccine’ into a search engine, it’s almost inevitable you’re going to get an anti-vaccine website popping up."
People who choose not to vaccinate their children are not just putting them at risk but also those who aren't actually able to get vaccinated, either because they are too young or they have a weakened immune system, for example, children going through chemotherapy. It comes down to a phenomenon called herd immunity.
The basic premise is that a whole community (or "herd") can be protected from a disease so long as a high enough proportion of the population is vaccinated. This prevents the bacteria or virus causing the illness from spreading. For measles, which is highly transmissible, 90 to 95 percent of people should be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity but there are some parts of Europe where as many as 30 percent of the population is unvaccinated.
Similarly, there are "hot spots" in the US where well under the required 90-95 percent of children are being vaccinated. In Camas County, Idaho, for example, more than one in four kindergarteners are unvaccinated.
"There is a terrific vulnerability in states like Texas and up in the Pacific Northwest,” Hotez added. “People forget that before kids were getting vaccinated we had between 400 and 700 deaths from measles annually in the US.”
While there have been measle outbreaks in the US (New York in 2013 and Minnesota in 2017), they have not been on the scale of the one currently sweeping Europe. But that doesn't mean there isn't a much larger outbreak waiting to happen.
"This is a real setup for disaster since measles is insanely contagious," Dr Albert W. Wu, a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told NBC.
"This is an accident waiting to happen."