U.S. measles outbreak sparks another conversation on vaccinations

Infographic by Casey Linenberg ’19   Filled-in states have had at least one case of measles between Jan. 1 and July 14, 2018.

Infographic by Casey Linenberg ’19

Filled-in states have had at least one case of measles between Jan. 1 and July 14, 2018.

BY VIVIAN LIVESAY ’21

As of Feb. 7, there have been 101 confirmed cases of measles in the U.S. in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though the virus — incredibly dangerous and most common in children — was declared eliminated in 2000, reported cases have been rising in the past 11 years. In 2018, there were 372 documented cases, almost three times as many as in 2017. According to the CDC, two doses of the measles vaccine, recommended to be administered between 12 and 15 months of age, is 97 percent effective at preventing contraction of the virus. Symptoms of measles include a fever, sore throat, runny nose and Koplik’s spots, which are small white spots on the inside of the cheek.

Before vaccines were available, measles was a common cause of death, especially among children. According to the CDC, Americans began recording diagnosed cases of measles in 1912. Over the first decade of recorded cases, 6,000 people died of measles each year. As recently as the 1950s, most cases of measles were reported in children under the age of 15, causing brain damage or death in hundreds of children each year.

Some modern measles outbreaks have been attributed to a lack of access to vaccines, as was the case in 2017, when an outbreak in a Somali-American community in Minnesota infected 75 people. In other cases, people choose not to be vaccinated. Eleanor Townsley, a sociology professor at Mount Holyoke, attributed part of the anti-vaccine movement to a “cultural filter of individualism [that] makes it harder to think in terms of larger social relationships.” Townsley explained that people tend to think in terms of their individual likelihood to contract a disease when deciding not to get vaccinated. However, experts agree that vaccination also works to protect the population through what is known as “herd immunity”. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and to the CDC, the more people who are vaccinated, the less likely it is that a disease can slip through the cracks and cause an outbreak. This protects pregnant women, infants and immunocompromised people who cannot get vaccinated due to a medical condition, among others.

The consequences of vaccination have been largely overblown. Jennifer Albertine, a professor of environmental studies at Mount Holyoke with a focus on public health, pointed out that dangerous side effects of vaccination “happen less than 0.001% of the time.”

“The science is settled that vaccines work and the benefits far outweigh the risks,” she said. “There is a lot of pseudoscience out there that people use to make uninformed decisions about whether to vaccinate their children.”

A substantial part of the reluctance to vaccinate children can be attributed to a study conducted by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 which seemed to claim a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the onset of autism. This study has been thoroughly discredited and Wakefield was soon thereafter barred from practicing medicine in the UK. However, its impact lingers.

Due to more effective communication on the benefits of vaccination and attempts to hold media entities accountable for content shared on their platforms, though, Americans are becoming increasingly aware of the issue. “I read in an article this week that measles vaccinations have risen 500 percent as a result of the outbreak,” Albertine said, referencing an NBC report on an outbreak that infected 50 people in Clark County, Washington. Even residents of the county who were otherwise hesitant to vaccinate their children are being moved to action by the reality of the disease. “I think people are realizing the importance of vaccines,” Albertine said.