Why Do We Only Worry About Measles?

Anti-vaccine folks often claim that health officials only worry about measles and measles outbreaks.

They can’t understand why anyone gets concerned by a few measles cases here and there, not understanding that a lot of work goes into containing measles outbreaks and making sure that they don’t grow beyond a few cases.

And health officials don’t just worry about measles. They work to control outbreaks of mumps, pertussis, hepatitis A, and all other diseases too.

Why We Worry About Measles Outbreaks

We do get concerned about measles outbreaks though.

“Whenever measles strikes, it’s more than just an outbreak of a single disease, or an indication that children aren’t receiving their measles shots; it’s also a warning that immunization coverage in general, for all vaccine-preventable diseases, is lower than it should be.

To put it another way: When rates of routine vaccination—children receiving all their shots on schedule, as a preventive measure rather than a reaction to an outbreak—start to fall, the first sign is usually a measles outbreak.”

Seth Berkley on Measles Outbreaks Are a Sign of Bigger Problems

The measles vaccine is among the most effective vaccines we have, so if we are seeing outbreaks, even though measles is very contagious, it means there is a problem.

“A focus on measles surveillance can help detect populations unreached by immunization systems and, by extension, program weaknesses. Measles serves as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for detecting problems with immunization programs, a characteristic whose importance has recently been highlighted in the context of global health security.”

Orenstein et al on Measles and Rubella Global Strategic Plan 2012–2020 midterm review

In the late 1980s, when we had large outbreaks between 1989 to 1991, with 55,622 cases and 123 deaths, it meant that we weren’t vaccinating enough kids because Federal support for vaccine programs had dropped.

As much as anti-vaccine folks like to try and minimize how serious measles can be, it is easy to see that measles is indeed a serious, life-threatening disease. We had good nutrition, proper sanitation, and modern health care in 1990, and still, a lot of people died with measles. Rates of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a late complication of measles, went up too, in the years after these outbreaks.

“Measles is a wholly preventable disease, and it was almost eradicated from the country in 1983, when only 1,497 cases were reported. But by 1990, after Federal budget cuts and the end of the Government’s monitoring of immunization programs, more than 30,000 cases of measles and more than 60 deaths were reported.”

Panel Ties Measles Epidemic to Breakdown in Health System

Those outbreaks were fixed, as we improved access to help kids get vaccinated and protected. Unfortunately, the issue with outbreaks today isn’t about access to vaccines, at least not in the developed world. It is about parents intentionally skipping or delaying vaccines.

How do you fix that?

Hopefully with education.

Why You Should Worry About Measles Outbreaks

Did you know that after the measles outbreaks of 1989, we also saw outbreaks of rubella and congenital rubella syndrome?

  • 396 cases of rubella, 4 deaths, and 2 cases of congenital rubella syndrome in 1989
  • 1,125 cases of rubella, 8 deaths, and 32 cases of congenital rubella syndrome in 1990
  • 1,401 cases of rubella, 1 death, and 34 cases of congenital rubella syndrome in 1991

Did you know that because they have overall lower vaccination rates, measles outbreaks in Europe grow far larger, into the tens of thousands of cases, with dozens of deaths?

“We must not tolerate a world in which a child dies from a disease that can be easily prevented with a low-cost vaccine.”

Dr Tedros, WHO Director-General on World Immunization Week 2018

We worry about measles outbreaks, because we don’t want to go back to anti-vaccine folks push us back to pre-vaccine era levels of disease and deaths.

We know what happens when vaccine levels drop too low.

A measles epidemic hit New York City in 1951, as this front page NYTimes article reports.
A measles epidemic hit New York City in 1951, as this NY Times article reports.

We know that vaccines are safe and necessary.

You should know that anti-vaccine propaganda that scares parents away from vaccinating and protecting their kids is rooted in myths and misinformation. They often get away with it because most parents today ahve never seen how devastating measles and other diseases can really be, so they believe stories about the Brady Bunch, instead of the advice of real experts.

You hopefully understand that’s a mistake.

More on Worrying About Measles Outbreaks

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