Hot off the heels of news that there have been 107 measles cases in the US already, the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that 41,000 children and adults in Europe (and Russia) have been infected with measles in the first half of 2018.
This total is remarkable for several reasons, including the fact that it’s far higher than the peak annual total for measles cases this decade. Measles is now more common in the region than it has been in 20 years.
Following on from a low in 2016 of 5,273 cases in 12 months, things suddenly jumped up to a high of 23,927 in 2017. We’re almost double that point already in 2018, and 37 people so far have perished. Ukraine is responsible for over half of the regional total so far, with multiple nations, from France and Italy to Greece and the Russian Federation seeing over 1,000 infections apiece.
The underlying driver of these horrific numbers is the same as in the US: pockets of people that haven’t been vaccinated.
Measles is an entirely preventable disease, with an affordable, safe vaccine that’s 97 percent effective having been available in some form or another since 1963. Thanks to its effectiveness, the WHO’s Global Vaccine Action Plan had earmarked the disease, along with rubella, for elimination in five key regions by 2020.
The fact that it’s making a comeback is an ignominious tribute to the power of misinformation and people’s ability to cling onto it.
Although various governments are bringing in or thinking of introducing tough vaccination laws, resistance to them has built in recent years. Vaccines for a suite of diseases are already mandatory in plenty of countries, including the US, but legal loopholes still exist.
Those with weakened immune systems cannot always be vaccinated, and rely on everyone else being inoculated in order to shield them from the disease. They are granted exemptions, but so are far too many others who object to vaccinations for religious or philosophical reasons.
Anti-vaxxer sentiment spiked during the 1998 MMR scare, when the since-disgraced gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, buoyed by sensationalist tabloids, linked the MMR jab to autism, something that’s been thoroughly debunked. As noted by The Guardian, the MMR jab rates recovered post-Wakefield in Europe, but persistent anti-vaxxer sentiment is clearly causing enormous problems even today.
It also doesn’t help that plenty of anti-establishment parties or politicians that have been on the ascendant have strongly engaged with anti-vaxxer ideals before, citing unfounded medical concerns or libertarian issues regarding "personal freedom and choice". Italy’s recently empowered coalition government between a far-right and populist party, for example, just overturned a previous ruling that made vaccinations for schoolchildren in the country mandatory.
As the WHO press release notes, immunization coverage of the measles vaccine increased from 88 percent of eligible children in the region in 2016 to 90 percent in 2017. At the same time, 43 of the region’s 53 member states have successfully interrupted the endemic (12-month-long, homegrown) spread of measles as of 2017.
Progress is being made, but it’s uneven, with individual communities achieving 95 percent coverage while others bubble below 70 percent. Those local pockets of unimmunized populations drive persistent outbreaks of what is an incredibly contagious disease.
The solution is obvious, but unless people are forced to get vaccinated, it’s unclear how to break through the anti-vaxxer, “it’s my choice as a parent” attitude. A recent study found that anti-vaxxers suffer from a well-known psychological effect, one in which the most ignorant are the most confident in their beliefs.
With that in mind, it’s clear that presenting them with factual information isn’t enough; their beliefs are driven by something deeper and more complex. Until that’s circumvented, lives will continue to be lost.