For most Americans in their 20s, 30s or even 40s, measles is one of a host of old-timey contagions they’ve never personally come in contact with – like mumps, whooping cough and polio.
That’s because aggressive vaccination campaigns starting in the 1950s largely stamped out these childhood scourges in the United States.
Their children, on the other hand, haven’t been so lucky.
Cases of mumps and whooping cough have reemerged in recent months, and now measles appears to be making a comeback, especially in places like New York City and Clark County, Washington.
In New York, 209 cases of measles have been reported since October, mostly among members of observant Jewish communities that recently traveled to Israel.
In Clark County, which has come to be known as a “hot spot” of the anti-vaccination movement, 36 cases have been reported since Jan. 1, mostly among children 10 and younger. The situation has gotten so bad Washington’s governor has declared a state of emergency.
Once a nearly universal childhood disease, measles was officially declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, when the annual number of cases nationwide fell below 100. So what’s causing its resurgence? Experts point to one factor, and one factor alone: lack of vaccination.
The measles comeback actually began in 1998, when British doctor Andrew Wakefield suggested there was a link between the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine and autism. Wakefield published his theory in the British journal Lancet. The media jumped on the story, unleashing a firestorm of public fear over the safety of the MMR vaccine.
Lancet later retracted the article after several troubling revelations came to light. Wakefield, it turns out, was paid to write the story to support a vaccine lawsuit. He’d also filed a patent to develop a rival vaccine. In the wake of the controversy, British officials revoked his medical license.
Yet the damage already had been done. Wakefield’s speculations, along with equally dubious concerns regarding thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative used in vaccines, had created a backlash against vaccinations among some American parents.
In the U.S., all 50 states require children to be immunized before they can attend school. Yet 47 states, including New York (and Illinois), allow parents to opt out of immunizations if they have religious beliefs against vaccines, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Among those 47 states, 18 (excluding Illinois), also allow parents to opt out of having their children vaccinated for personal, moral or philosophical reasons. One such state is Washington, where the vaccination rate for kindergartners in places like Clark County is regularly far below the national average.
Yet the problem doesn’t end there. Vaccination exemptions also have helped push local populations outside of what’s known as herd immunity – the level of immunization needed to prevent the spread of a contagious disease within the population, meaning the problem in Washington is likely to get worse before it gets better.
There’s a way to prevent future epidemics like this from happening, of course: have your child vaccinated. Vaccinations repeatedly have been proven safe and effective, despite dubious claims based on religious opinion or personal belief.
Unfortunately, there’s still no vaccine for ignorance.