Federal health officials are warning that measles — a highly-contagious respiratory infection that the U.S. virtually eradicated back in 2000 — is making a serious comeback. This year is on track to have the highest number of measles cases in the past 17 years, and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) researchers say that’s likely because of pervasive anti-vaccine beliefs that have allowed the disease to spread.
The CDC investigated a decades’ worth of measles cases, including new data from as recently as last month, and concluded that the number of infections have been steadily creeping up in recent years. There used to be about 60 annual cases of measles in the U.S. But so far this year, 159 cases of measles have been reported.
Most of this year’s infections stemmed from three different outbreaks: 58 cases in New York City, 23 cases in North Carolina, and 21 cases in Texas. CDC officials note that all of those areas are home to communities where many people don’t vaccinate their children for religious reasons. The March outbreak in New York originated among Orthodox Jews, and the August outbreak in Texas was traced to an evangelical megachurch that preaches faith healing.
Altogether, the CDC’s report found that 80 percent of this year’s measles cases occurred among people who had never received a vaccination for measles — and a full 79 percent of those people cited “philosophical differences” that led them to avoid the inoculation for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).
“The increase in measles cases in the United States in 2013 serves as a reminder that imported measles cases can result in large outbreaks, particularly if introduced into areas with pockets of unvaccinated persons,” researchers wrote in their new report. Many of the recent major outbreaks have all been sparked by an individual traveling from Europe — which is currently dealing with its own measles outbreak spreading among religious communities — who spreads measles to unvaccinated individuals.
Health experts aren’t mincing words about the potential impact of a measles comeback. “This is very bad. This is horrible,” Dr. Buddy Creech, a a pediatric infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, said on a telephone briefing with the CDC this week. “The complications of measles are not to be toyed with, and they’re not altogether rare.”
Measles causes what can often be mistaken as flu-like symptoms, like a high fever, a runny nose, and a rash. It can be fatal in children — and even when it’s not as deadly, it typically makes kids very sick. In 2011, nearly 40 percent of the children under the age of 5 who came down with measles had to go to the hospital. Creech pointed out that many younger physicians who have been practicing since measles was essentially eradicated may not be able to recognize what it looks like.
In general, the CDC’s push to vaccinate children against once-common illnesses has been largely successful. Two decades ago, the Vaccines For Children (VFC) program began providing shots for kids free of cost, and federal officials say that helped increase the national immunization rate to above 90 percent for diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, polio, hepatitis B, and chicken pox.
But the MMR shot has been particularly controversial, thanks to several prominent figures who tout the myth that it can cause autism in children. That misconception emerged from a widely-debunked 1998 study that made the case against vaccines — and even though there’s no scientific evidence to support it, it’s had lasting effects. Many U.S. parents, even those outside of religious communities with objections to vaccines, still have some lingering doubts about whether it’s safe to vaccinate their children.