The following article was published April 2, 2014 as a guest editorial in the Oregonian and can be found on Oregon Live here. Today, we can say the North American measles epidemic is in full swing. We are just waiting for the body count, a comment the Oregonian in their wisdom elected to remove from my submitted draft.
Measles is near. Last Aug.18, Texas health officials announced 12 cases of measles in that state. By Aug. 20, the number of officially reported cases was 16. The majority belonged to a single church whose pastor had been recommending that parents avoid vaccines. It wasn’t even the biggest outbreak last year. There were 58 cases in New York. So far this year, we’ve had five cases near San Francisco, 20 in Orange County and over 320 cases in Canada’s Fraser Valley to our north, which has spread to at least one resident of Whatcom County Washington. We’ve also had an outbreak of mumps at Ohio State.
It is only a matter of time before the most vulnerable start suffering the consequences of an American epidemic. Oregon is the state with highest exemption rate in the US. This makes our local area particularly vulnerable to an explosive epidemic. Just for perspective, only 3 percent of children are exempted in California, and they have had the biggest outbreak so far this year. As the ring gets tighter, it is only a matter of time before officials in the Portland metro area have to scramble to respond to a disease we thought we had eliminated from our shores in 2000.
Measles is not the flu. It is much worse. Influenza has an attack rate of about 50 percent, measles 90 percent. That means that 90 percent of non-immune people who come in contact with the measles virus will actually acquire the disease. Complications range from the trivial, like ear infections and diarrhea, to dehydration, to pneumonia, dehydration and encephalitis, a serious type of brain infection.
Traditional epidemiology reports that 20 percent of children can expect to be hospitalized, and three out of a 1,000 will die. Most recent data from Europe would suggest that the numbers are closer to 30 percent hospitalized and a 1-2 percent fatality rate.
In the 1950s and 1960s, an average of 450 American deaths were annually attributed to measles or its complications. Following the introduction of the measles vaccine, the number of cases steadily declined until 2000, when there were no cases at all. In 2013, the latest year for which the CDC has reported statistics, there were 189 cases of measles. Many were imported from countries with inadequate vaccine coverage, but we are seeing more cases in vaccine refusers. There have been no recent deaths, but in a large epidemic, the odds are not promising.
After 15 years of misinformation, complacency due to the lack of domestic deaths and a series of paranoid and ignorant conspiracy theories, we are starting to see outbreaks. This is misinformation with a body count.
When the percentage of people immune to measles drops significantly, massive and sudden increases in the number of measles cases follow. In France, where the anti-vaccine movement caught fire in the middle of the last decade, cases of measles went from about 30 in 2005 to 15,000 in 2011. There were six deaths. Last year, the United Kingdom suffered 1,219 cases with one death.
Some of the cases are occurring among children who have received the vaccine. Since vaccines are never 100 percent effective in preventing any disease, the risk of failure rises proportionately to the cumulative weight of exposure. The more cases are in your neighborhood, the greater the chance that your vaccinated child may get the disease.
No vaccine is entirely safe. Balancing the risks of preventing disease with the risks of the actual vaccine is not an easy task. Informed consent is a cornerstone of any medical practice, and every parent has the responsibility of weighing the evidence for themselves. But how do parents decide when the information about vaccines is more about conspiracies and wrong data? How do responsible and critical thinking parents who chose the vaccine react when a significant proportion of their neighbors undermine collective efforts to keep a deadly disease out of their home?
Some goals, like eliminating measles, can only be accomplished by group action, taken with full knowledge that a few will suffer, but the majority will gain something significant. This is what it means to live in a community. This is what it means to be responsible.