Cities across the United States are currently grappling with the spread of infectious diseases that used to be virtually eliminated with the help of vaccines. Public health officials are scrambling to contain outbreaks of measles and mumps, two illnesses that can be prevented with the same round of vaccinations.
The measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is recommended for all young children. But it’s the same type of shot that a widely discredited 1998 study claimed could be linked to autism. Since then, unscientific fears about vaccines and autism — often stoked by prominent celebrities — have dissuaded an increasing number of parents from following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended vaccination schedule. It’s not hard to see the consequences of that trend.
For instance, the mumps is back with a vengeance. An outbreak of mumps in central Ohio recently topped 200 cases, mostly concentrated around Ohio State University. Officials have identified the source of the outbreak in Franklin County, which typically sees just one case of the mumps every year. And Ohio isn’t the only place where mumps is cropping up. An usually high number of cases have also been identified at Fordham University in New York, and multiple students have come down with mumps at two universities in Wisconsin. Mumps have been recorded in central Illinois, too.
The mumps, which causes the inflammation of the salivary glands, is typically not dangerous. But it can lead to potentially serious complications like hearing loss, meningitis, and swelling of the testicles or the ovaries. Before the widespread use of vaccination in the 1960s, about 186,000 infants, children, and young adults contracted mumps each year. Thanks to inoculation, that infection rate has decreased by 99 percent over the past several decades. Although the vaccine’s protection against mumps does tend to lose its effectiveness over time, the CDC believes the country has still been able to keep the disease in check thanks to high immunization rates.
But health officials in Ohio are worried that progress is stalling. They’re concerned about the mumps spreading to elementary schools, particularly since the contagious disease typically spreads quickly when kids are in close contact. On Wednesday, they warned parents that if their kids haven’t yet received the MMR vaccine, they may need to be quarantined at home for at least 25 days if mumps starts spreading.
“Hopefully, there will be some [parents] who will reconsider and, hopefully, take action and get their kids immunized,” Columbus Public Health spokesman Jose Rodriguez noted.
A similar situation is unfolding with measles, which can be more serious than the mumps in young children. Over the past several months, health officials have identified outbreaks of measles in Boston, New York, Texas, Connecticut, Illinois, and several California cities. The Golden State has been hit particularly hard this year — and most of the measles cases within its borders have been identified among people who intentionally skipped out on the MMR shot.
Jenny McCarthy, who has become the face of the anti-vaccination movement, has received some of the blame for the recent rise of preventable diseases. This past weekend, she attempted to clarify her stance on the topic. “I believe in the importance of a vaccine program and I believe parents have the right to choose one poke per visit. I’ve never told anyone to not vaccinate,” she wrote in an op-ed published in the Chicago Sun-Times.
But federal health officials have carefully designed the standard vaccine schedule to provide the best protection — for instance, kids need two doses of the MMR shot — to prevent kids from going for any stretches of time when their vulnerable immune systems may be susceptible to potentially deadly diseases. A large body of scientific research has proven this schedule is perfectly safe. Although pediatricians take each child’s medical history into consideration, and are obviously open to discussing individual parents’ concerns, public health experts agree that it can be dangerous to suggest the current protocol is unsafe.