So far this year, the U.S. has seen more measles cases than during any single year in the past two decades, federal health officials announced on Thursday. Even though we’re only halfway through 2014, there have already been 288 confirmed cases of the highly contagious disease — which easily surpasses the previous national record of 220 cases in 2011.
Although measles was virtually eliminated about 15 years ago, it’s now making a comeback. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that’s thanks to the U.S. residents who haven’t received their recommended vaccinations.
“The current increase in measles cases is being driven by unvaccinated people, primarily U.S. residents, who got measles in other countries, brought the virus back to the United States and spread to others in communities where many people are not vaccinated,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, the director of CDC’s National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases, explained in a statement. “Many of the clusters in the U.S. began following travel to the Philippines where a large outbreak has been occurring since October 2013.”
According to the CDC’s data, 90 percent of all the measles cases in the U.S. this year occurred among people who either weren’t vaccinated or whose vaccination status was unknown. And 85 percent of those unvaccinated Americans reported that they didn’t get their shots for “religious, philosophical, or personal reasons.”
The biggest measles outbreak has been clustered around an Amish community in Ohio, after an unvaccinated Amish man contracted the disease in the Philippines. The Amish, who live separately from modern society and typically avoid medical interventions, have not historically sought out vaccines. But after measles began to spread, the community ordered thousands of doses of vaccines to combat the public health threat.
Unfortunately, other Americans are not quite as easily persuaded to get their shots. Despite the wealth of scientific research proving that the federal vaccinaton schedule is safe for children, a persistent conspiracy theory suggesting that the measles vaccine can lead to autism has taken hold among some parents, stoked by prominent celebrity spokespeople like Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari. There’s been increasing evidence that this anti-vaccine myth is persuading some parents to claim “philosophical objections” to vaccines, something that’s been directly tied to disease outbreaks.
It’s incredibly difficult to change those parents’ minds about vaccines. Research has found that there’s no amount of scientific fact that can convince them that vaccines aren’t linked to autism, largely because the people who resist vaccination are distrustful of scientists’ opinions on the subject. One recent study found that even disease outbreaks, like the current spread of measles, aren’t enough to convince more people to inoculate their kids.