Measles certainly seems popular in the US at the moment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from January 1 of this year to July 14, 107 people from 21 different states were diagnosed with the viral disease. Here’s the predictable kicker: the majority of people who were diagnosed weren’t vaccinated.
These numbers certainly fit in with the recent timeline of measles outbreaks in the Land of the Free. In 2017, there were 188 cases in 15 states. In 2016, it was 86 people in 19 states. In 2015, you had 188 people from 24 states.
The year before that was America’s recent peak, featuring a staggering 667 cases across 27 states, the greatest number since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.
That elimination, by the way, was a major milestone. Prior to 1963, before there was a measles vaccination program, between 3 and 4 million people got the disease per year; 48,000 were hospitalized, and 500 perished. Then, as inoculations were brought in, the cases dropped dramatically, bolstered by the 1994 Vaccines for Children initiative.
“Elimination” means that there are no longer endemic (homegrown, so to speak) cases in the country of a particular disease for at least 12 months – and at the turn of the millennium, this was achieved. This was thrilling news for the World Health Organization’s Global Vaccine Action Plan, which earmarked the elimination of measles and rubella for elimination in five key regions of the planet by 2020.
Sadly, sensationalist media reporting focusing on an entirely discredited link between autism and the MMR vaccine triggered a surge in skepticism over inoculations, and the rest, as they say, is history. The CDC note that, in combination with perhaps more measles cases than usual in countries that Americans often travel to and vice versa, unvaccinated pockets in the US are thought to be driving this recent uptick.
The measles vaccine, apart from being perfectly safe, is 97 percent effective. When communities take it, even those that can't take the vaccine, for example, those who have a weaker immune system due to undergoing chemotherapy, then those unvaccinated people are protected anyway thanks to a phenomenon called herd immunity.
When people choose not to take it, they aren’t just endangering themselves, but entire communities. This much is clear, but anti-vaxxer sentiment is a surprisingly difficult problem to deal with. A recent study found that those who know the least about vaccine safety are often the most confident of their beliefs, which suggests that in order to change minds, facts simply aren’t enough – their confidence has to be chipped away too.
Those based on aforementioned medical reasons are clearly fine, but there are also exemptions handed out to those with religious or philosophical reservations. Although they are supposed to be granted very rarely, studies show that this isn’t the case.
Sure, the delivery of measles via international travelers to the US is certainly linked to several recent outbreaks, but if those US citizens were vaccinated, those outbreaks would never have happened. The same can be said about the surge of cases in Europe.
The message is simple: get vaccinated if you aren’t already. Getting that message through a barrage of misinformation and personal beliefs, however, is looking increasingly Herculean in a world that, by now, should have been on the verge of consigning measles to the dustbin of history.