Europe has seen a drastic rise in measles cases in the first half of this year. More than 41,000 cases have been reported, resulting in at least 37 deaths.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that they’ve identified more than 100 measles cases in 21 states and the District of Columbia.
Those figures are consistent with totals from the past few years. However, in the 1990s and early 2000s, measles cases had plunged dramatically. At one point, the disease was believed to no longer be endemic in the United States.
Given the highly contagious nature of measles, this all might be a cause for concern for parents with children heading back to school.
However, experts say protecting children from measles is as simple as getting an immunization shot.
The cost of getting a measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is often negligible or even free.
Dr. Michael Brady, an infectious disease expert at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, notes that, even though no vaccine is ever 100 percent protective, the measles vaccine has proven its effectiveness in preventing outbreaks.
“If a child has received their measles immunization, the risk to them of getting measles if they’re exposed to someone who has measles is very, very low,” he said. “And because they probably have some level of immunity to measles, if they were to actually get it, it’s very likely that it would be modified by their immune response because they’ve got the vaccine. The measles vaccine is a very, very good vaccine.”
How it spreads and how it’s stopped
Brady says it’s apparent that areas with low vaccination rates are more susceptible to measles.
The best way to curb rates, he says, is to enforce immunizations.
As an example, Brady points to the measles outbreak that began at Disneyland in Southern California in December 2014.
“California was a state that had low — compared to the rest of the country — immunization against measles when the outbreak at Disneyland occurred, and there were lots of people in the state that were affected by that,” he explained. “They were able to pass a law that markedly reduced the ability for exemption from immunization, and they have since then seen significant improvement in not having measles cases occur.”
Brady says that laws like the one passed in California are the best way to get vaccination rates up.
“I would like people to say, ‘Gee, I really want my child immunized against measles because it’s the right thing to do.’ But that’s not happening, so the best way to handle it is to have these mandatory requirements for childcare entry or school entry,” he said. “Unfortunately, many of the people who are opposed to vaccines do homeschooling, so that also creates a problem.”
Discredited research still convinces many
The rise in measles cases is tied directly to falling vaccination rates. Falling vaccination rates, in turn, are often related to a misplaced fear that the measles vaccine causes autism.
This belief can be tied to a 1998 paper authored by former physician Andrew Wakefield, who posited that the measles vaccine causes autism.
Other researchers were unable to duplicate his findings. Wakefield and his paper were discredited and he went on to become an anti-vaccine activist.
“When [Wakefield] specifically tried to tie autism to the measles vaccine, there was a pretty significant acceptance of that as a good explanation because, unfortunately, the medical community didn’t have any better explanation,” said Brady.
“We fortunately now know that autism is a group of different diseases and, in general, when they have identified causes, they’ve been genetic,” Brady added. “But the damage was already done and it created a tremendous amount of distrust in immunizations based on a fraudulent study.”
Brady says another factor that fuels the anti-vaccination movement is the fact that recent generations haven’t personally experienced measles.
“People who had seen measles when the vaccine first came out were very, very willing to take the vaccine,” he said. “Part of the problem is that people in 2018 haven’t experienced the potential adverse consequences of getting measles.”
When it comes to convincing people that the measles vaccine is in everybody’s best interest, Brady identifies two groups: vaccine hesitant and vaccine refusers.
“Vaccine hesitant people are usually willing to listen. If you can explain to them what the value is and try to address their concerns, they are frequently reasonably willing to get their child vaccinated,” he explained. “But there are also vaccine refusers, and it’s been determined that no matter what kind of factual information you can provide, you can’t overcome their bias. That’s why the only way to have an impact is to have some kind of mandatory process.”
It’s also important to note that the measles vaccine doesn’t just protect the person getting vaccinated. It’s also in the best interests of public health.
“One of the issues that’s problematic is that we have large numbers of children in the United States who are immunocompromised for a number of different reasons. They’re getting treated for their cancer. They have an HIV infection or they’re born with a problem in their immune system,” said Brady. “These children can’t receive the vaccine, and so if they’re exposed to a child who has measles, they can get very, very severe disease and, not infrequently, die.”