New York City is currently grappling with a measles outbreak. Health officials have identified 16 cases of the highly contagious infectious disease, resulting in at least six hospitalizations, and are now warning unvaccinated individuals that they need to get their shots.
And New York isn’t the only place where measles — which was once so rare that it was virtually eradicated in the U.S. back in 2000 — is cropping up again. Within the past two months, health officials have also identified cases in the Boston, San Francisco, San Diego, and Dallas areas. Measles have also recently been reported in suburban areas in Connecticut and Illinois.
Just one case of measles can pose a huge public health threat, since it has the potential to be transmitted quickly. It can spread through the air when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. For instance, last month, thousands of California commuters were potentially exposed to the disease after an unvaccinated man with the measles rode public transportation.
Many of the measles outbreaks here in the U.S. originate after an unvaccinated individual has traveled abroad and contracted the disease there. Then, when they return to this country, they can spread measles among pockets of other unvaccinated people. This isn’t an issue if most people simply get the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. That’s why San Francisco didn’t experience a larger outbreak after the recent public transportation scare there — the rates of MMR vaccination in that city are high.
But, thanks to ongoing anti-vaccine propaganda, that’s not necessarily the case everywhere. An increasing number of parents are choosing to forgo their kids’ MMR shot based on scientifically inaccurate claims that it can lead to autism. The actress and model Jenny McCarthy, who’s a prominent anti-vaccine activist, has a lot to do with that. By 2008, about one in four adults reported they were familiar with McCarthy’s views about vaccines, and 40 percent of them said her claims led them to question vaccine safety. This issue hasn’t died down since then; just this week, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and his wife, former reality TV star Kristin Cavallari, said they won’t vaccinate their kids over fears about autism.
Federal health officials have already been able to connect the dots here. Last fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report warning that anti-vaccine beliefs have fueled a rise in measles cases. Researchers noted that 2013 saw the highest number of measles cases in nearly two decades, and 80 percent of those cases occurred among unvaccinated people — most of whom cited “philosophical differences” with the MMR vaccine.
“I hope that those who are vaccine hesitant or vaccine avoidant realize there are consequences to their actions,” Dr. Buddy Creech, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University who partnered with the CDC to publicize the release of that report, said back in September. “None of us lives in isolation.”
Nonetheless, this continues to be a contentious issue on the state level. Vaccine requirements vary, and some states allow parents to easily opt their kids out of the necessary shots by simply signing a form. Even though vaccine exemptions have been directly tied to infectious disease outbreaks, some state residents continue to resist efforts to crack down on those loopholes.