Junkfood Science: When fears hurt: Measles are making a come-back

May 15, 2008

When fears hurt: Measles are making a come-back

History may be one of the most important school subjects because forgetting its lessons can lead us to repeat the most costly and deadliest mistakes. Medical professionals reading the news over recent months can only watch in dismay as scares, soundly and repeatedly debunked by good science, have led parents around the world to not vaccinate their children. Before immunizations, about 500 children in the United States died each year of measles alone and others were left permanently disabled, while their parents could do nothing to prevent it. Vaccinations virtually eliminated such tragedies.

The latest issue of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, says that measles had declined to fewer than 150 cases by 1997. “Before introduction of measles vaccination in 1963, approximately 3 to 4 million persons had measles annually in the United States; approximately 400-500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 developed chronic disability from measles encephalitis,” the editors wrote.

Measles transmission had been declared eliminated in the U.S. in the year 2000, with a mere 62 cases a year during 2000 to 2007. However just between January and April 25th of this year, already 64 cases have been reported. Measles is making a come-back.

All but one of the children with measles had been unvaccinated or had undocumented vaccinations. Eight out of ten of those cases had been contracted through people traveling abroad. Virtually all cases this year have occurred among children whose parents claimed vaccination exemptions for personal beliefs, according to the CDC.

It might be easy to think we don’t need vaccines anymore, but we forget that in other parts of the world outbreaks of polio, diphtheria, measles and whooping cough are still occurring. About 20 million cases of measles occur worldwide, killing about 242,000 children every year, according to the CDC. With more people traveling, it’s increasingly easy to import them along with our frequent-flyer miles. Dozens of measles cases are imported to the U.S. from abroad each year, threatening the health of unvaccinated children and others for whom the vaccine was not effective.

Dr. Lance Chilton, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico and an Albuquerque pediatrician for 31 years said, “each time immunization rates have dropped in developed countries, such as England, Sweden, Japan and the U.S., they’ve had a rapid and dramatic increase in disease and deaths.”

In just the past three months, we’ve learned of 1,424 cases of measles and 126 deaths in Niger, most victims were children between one and three years old. The director primary health care, Dr. Mohammed Usman, said that the cases were from parents rejecting routine immunizations, with the highest mortality rates in Kontagora emirate, where parents have most rejected the vaccines.

In Tokyo where vaccination rates are low, 5,821 people, mostly young people, have come down with measles as of April 13th this year. A major vaccination effort has been initiated on campuses.

Last weekend, seven cases of measles were diagnosed in Grand County of central Washington state, with eight others two weeks prior. All 15 of the children had been unvaccinated, according to public health officials.

In Switzerland, which has a vaccination rate of 78 percent, more than 2,500 measles cases have occurred since 2006, said pediatrician Dr. Henry de Give. In Israel, there have been 1,000 cases, he said.

In Tucson, Arizona, 20 confirmed cases of measles have been reported since February, with more than a dozen new cases now under investigation, including at several day cares.

Today, we learned of eights cases of measles just confirmed in Petersborough, Canada, with another two still being investigated, and a total of 36 cases in Ontario.

The number of measles cases in the UK increased more than 30% last year to the highest levels since records began in 1995. Most of the cases were in children under age 15, according to the Health Protection Agency, with most where vaccinations are low or picked up during travels.

The real source of this surge in measles outbreaks, said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, M.D., in the New York Post, are growing but groundless fears over the safety of vaccines, especially “flawed ideas about...the purported link to thimerosal.” But every expert review of the evidence has found “absolutely no causal link between autism rates and the amount of thimerosal children received.” Since 2001, he adds, “thimerosal has been removed from or reduced to trace amounts in all vaccines routinely recommended for children 6 and younger (with the exception of inactivated influenza vaccine).”

Because vaccines are given to millions of otherwise healthy children, he said, safety problems could have devastating consequences. That’s why, “vaccines are among the most closely scrutinized and carefully regulated health-care products on the market. But that reality, and reams of the scientific evidence, isn't enough to quell fears.”

The recent fears and evidence surrounding these fears were covered here.

An ER nurse recently wrote a heartbreaking account of a 9-month old baby who died despite all efforts to save him. His mother had chosen not to vaccinate him, she wrote, and had brought him in after her naturopath had failed. “Anyone who has ever watched a child die or become permanently disabled from a preventable illness supports vaccination,” she concluded. It and her readers’ comments, many nurses working in the front lines, are worth reading.

Making sound decisions about risks and what’s best for our children can be hard, especially when we get caught up in fears. As Dr. Chilton said, “nothing we do is absolutely safe.” But when parents come to him wanting proof of absolute vaccine safety, he reminds them: “Vaccines are among the most tested drugs we have. Yes, there are rare problems with vaccines, but you took a higher risk to drive here to the clinic today.”

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