The news is unsurprising, but nonetheless disturbing: Research published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) indicates that the increase in measles cases in the United States, and outbreaks in recent years, are mostly caused by declining rates of vaccination.
Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined nearly 1,800 cases of measles that occurred from 2001 to 2015. Public health officials declared that endemic measles – cases that originate in this country – had been eliminated by 2000, but travelers to other countries have occasionally brought the disease home with them, where it has found more of a foothold here in recent years.
In their JAMA letter, CDC researchers found that at least 70 percent of Americans who caught the measles during those years were unvaccinated. It is important to remember that the actual number might be much higher; about half of the stricken adults age 30 and older did not know whether or not they had been vaccinated.
“We know that unvaccinated individuals are more likely to become infected with and spread vaccine-preventable diseases,” says Allison Winnike, President and CEO of The Immunization Partnership (TIP). “This research from the CDC highlights just high those numbers are. It is distressing to know that 70 percent of recent U.S. measles infections could have been prevented through immunization.”
The picture was even more stark when it came to babies and young children: Nearly all of the 194 babies up to 11 months old who caught the measles were unvaccinated. That is because the CDC vaccination schedule does not call for giving children their first dose of the vaccine until they are 12 months old.
It is an important reason why vaccination is not just a personal choice by parents, but a community responsibility to protect the most vulnerable among us, including babies too young to have received the protection of the shot for measles, mumps and rubella.
Lack of vaccination was also a serious problem in older children who should have had immunity to the disease. Of the 464 who caught measles during the time frame, 87.5 percent were unvaccinated.
The researchers noted that the number of measles numbers remains relatively low; the problems tend to occur in pockets of the nation where vaccination rates have dropped in recent years over unfounded beliefs that the vaccine can cause autism.
Measles is far from a mild “childhood” disease. It can cause seizures, deafness and encephalitis (brain inflammation) and can even be fatal. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in July that over the previous year, 34 children had died of measles in Europe; thousands of people were sickened in that single year. In Minnesota, where low vaccination rates led to a measles outbreak in the Somali-American community, about one-third of the nearly 80 people stricken, almost all of them children, required hospitalization.
Another troubling trend noted by the CDC researchers: The percent of measles cases that were brought from abroad has declined, while the percent of people who caught the disease here increased. In other words, when a person is infected abroad and brings measles home to this country, it spreads to a lot more people here, probably, researchers said, because of lower vaccination rates.
Measles is highly contagious and can be transmitted for days before any symptoms occur; if 100 unvaccinated people are exposed to a sick person, 90 can be expected to fall sick. At the same time, the measles vaccine is among the most effective, preventing the spread of the disease in 97 percent of vaccinated people who receive both recommended doses.
In other words, our country does not have to experience the tragedy that recently occurred in Europe, with dozens of children dying of a vaccine-preventable disease. Measles is a terrible disease and we should be doing all we can to stop it now. All it takes is a simple and safe vaccine to protect us.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
TIP Op-Ed: The Link Between Texas and Minnesota's Measles
So Many Mumps Outbreaks — and Now One in Texas
20 Million Children's Lives Saved by Measles Vaccine in Just 15 Years