214 children have contracted measles so far this year in the US in the largest outbreak of the infectious disease in 15 years. Public health officials believe that international travel and not enough people being vaccinated against the disease are the cause. While US vaccination rates for measles are 90 percent, higher than in Western Europe, Africa, and Asia, the controversy over the MMR vaccine being somehow connected to autism — a claim that has been soundly refuted by scientific studies — has led to parents choosing not to vaccine their children, or to delay vaccination.
The MMR-autism controversy ballooned over the past decade since a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, claimed that he had found a link between the vaccine and autism, the neurodevelopment disorder. Even though the journal, The Lancet, has retracted the study in which Wakefield published his findings, and public health officials, scientists and many in the autism community have spoken out about there being no connection, suspicion about the MMR has stayed in the public mindset.
The rise in cases of measles — a deadly and disabling disease that is easily transmitted — is in part due to this unfortunate controversy. The US has seen about 60 to 70 cases of measles reported annually in recent years; the 214 cases so far this year are alarming. Among those infected, 86 percent were unvaccinated or had unknown vaccination status. 13 percent who contacted measles were under a year old and had not yet received the vaccine, which is first given to children aged 12 to 15 months and then again when a child is four or six.
An unvaccinated high school student who contracted measles while aboard started one outbreak in the US:
As a result, nine people became infected, costing about $300,000 to contain the outbreak. Costs included infection control in two area hospitals and intervention by local and state health departments. In the outbreak, 12,000 people were contacted about possible exposure and quarantining 184 people, including 51 students.
757 cases of measles have been reported in Canada as of October 5. 18 people who had traveled aboard were again the source of the outbreak. 505 of the 757 reported to have contracted measles unvaccinated or had unknown vaccination status.
So if you are traveling aboard, make sure you and certainly your children are vaccinated — measles is highly contagious and, if an unvaccinated child is exposed to it, he or she will probably get the disease. For every 1,000 children who contact the disease, one or two die.
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Photo of a child with measles by Dave Hargarth