As Vaccinations Wane, Measles Makes a Comeback
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For years, doctors have steadfastly debunked the unfounded claims against inoculation for measles. Yet false beliefs that the vaccine might cause seizures, autism, mercury poisoning or death have survived and proliferated, spread like a contagion via television and social media.
These myths have caused great harm — a fact that’s increasingly apparent. Lower rates of vaccination have caused outbreaks of the illness around the world. The rise in incidence may finally be scaring sense into parents who’d been wary of having their children get their shots, but it would be foolish to count on it. Governments urgently need to make stronger demands that parents have their children inoculated.
Measles is serious. In children, it can lead to deafness, lasting breathing problems, weakened immunity, brain damage or death. The virus behind it is so contagious that a cough from someone who may not know he’s infected is enough to sicken nine in 10 people who breathe the surrounding air during the next two hours. It’s a needless risk. The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, given in two doses, is 97 percent effective in preventing infection.
What’s most frustrating about the recent doubling in worldwide measles cases — to nearly 230,000 in 2018 — is that so much progress had previously been made. From 2000 to 2016, vaccination had lowered the number of measles deaths globally by 84 percent.
Because measles is so contagious, vaccination rates must reach 95 percent for a population to be protected. In any school, only a handful of children can safely go without the vaccine, so the option needs to be strictly confined to those with impaired immune systems or other medical conditions that preclude inoculation.
In many U.S. states, families are allowed to opt out of vaccination for religious or merely “philosophical” reasons. One of these states is Washington, where the governor has declared a state of emergency to deal with a measles outbreak. Exemption laxity has also led to contagions in several other states. Abroad, “vaccine hesitancy” has helped fuel outbreaks in Ukraine, the Philippines and Japan.
Talking parents out of their reluctance to vaccinate has proved difficult. When presented with the facts, some refuse to listen. Others may believe that the risk their child will contract the disease is too small to worry about — but if more than a tiny number of parents think that way, then that belief becomes false.
Thus, to prevent outbreaks, states and countries have little choice but to bar unvaccinated children from schools. California has made significant strides toward achieving effective group immunity by removing personal-belief exemptions. Similar legislation is under consideration in Washington, Iowa and Minnesota. Lawmakers in Texas, which has also seen a recurrence, haven’t gone so far, but they are considering a bill that would at least enable parents to find out the vaccination rates in their local schools.
Other states are doing little, or even moving backward. Arizona lawmakers are actually looking to expand vaccine exemptions, and to require that doctors disclose all the ingredients in every shot they give.
Congress and outgoing FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb have sounded alarms, and rightly so. Social media sites like Facebook and Pinterest could help by blocking anti-vax propaganda, but governments also need to act before the problem gets any worse. Popular resistance has been a problem for vaccination from the start. When it comes to measles, it has gotten out of hand and needs to be defeated. Lives are at stake.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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