MEASLES IS making a comeback. The extremely contagious — potentially life-threatening — disease was declared all-but-eradicated in 2000, after decades of immunization programs for preschool children. But reported cases of the disease in the United States, which have averaged between 50 and 100 a year for the past two decades, last year spiked to 644. The latest outbreak has been identified as beginning in Disneyland, of all places, last December. Since the beginning of this year through Jan. 30, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 102 cases in 14 states. Central to the problem is a lack of immunization. The cause is clear: parents who have refused to have their children vaccinated.
Immunization is required nationwide in school systems, although there are exemptions — for medical reasons, as advised by a pediatrician, or on the basis of religious belief. A medical exemption can be obtained with a note from a doctor; a religious exemption requires a note from a parent — although many religions endorse vaccination.
But some parents are choosing based on unfounded fears about the safety of vaccines. The most popular objections to vaccines cite a causal link between vaccines and autism, but those claims — linked to a 1998 British study that was shown to be fraudulent — have now been refuted by numerous other studies and have been shown to be completely without merit.
The best defense against measles outbreaks in the greater population is comprehensive immunization that creates “herd immunity.” That is, when the vast majority of the population has been immunized, then everyone is protected. Ideally, a minimum of 90 percent immunization protects everyone. The danger comes in pockets, or clusters, of unimmunized people, which allow the disease to spread — the most vulnerable being infants under 12 months, who are too young to be vaccinated.
The measles virus is an airborne contagion: After a person with measles sneezes, the virus can live in the air for up to two hours. Before measles vaccines became common, in 1963, tens of thousands of people contracted the disease every year, many were hospitalized, and up to 500 per year died. Its effects included encephalitis, pneumonia, blindness, and deafness. Measles is far more contagious than Ebola, but it says something about our society that more people seem to have been afraid of Ebola than of measles, and more people are afraid of the demonstrably effective vaccine than of the disease itself.
Massachusetts is fortunate. The state’s Department of Public Health estimates a minimum annual immunization rate of 96 percent. But there are still pockets of unimmunized people, mostly in Western Massachusetts and on the Cape and Islands. In some instances, the immunization rate falls as low as 69 percent. Meanwhile, the number of religious exemptions claimed by parents has climbed from 347 in 2002-2003 to 837 in 2013-14, according to the DPH.
A parent’s concerns for his or her children are understandable, but the fears about vaccines are simply irrational. “The benefits so far outweigh the risks that it becomes difficult to defend an anti-vaccine position in any scientific way,” says Dr. Lawrence Madoff, director of the DPH’s division of epidemiology and immunization. Parents would do well to focus on the very real, extensively documented dangers of a highly infectious disease. There’s more danger created by an unvaccinated child than by a scientifically proven vaccine.