2013 already has more cases of measles than any other year in recent memory, but it’s on track to be the worst in more than two decades. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control blames this rise in instances of a disease that was essentially eradicated little more than a decade ago on the increasing number of parents that refuse to vaccinate their children.
In the years surrounding the turn of the millennium, the disease was largely considered a non-issue. Instances were so few and far between that most medical experts thought of the pesky bug as largely eliminated. The U.S. averaged 50 or 60 cases of measles on an annual basis, mostly isolated occurrences. From January to August of this year there have already been 159 cases.
If this trend continues, the number will surpass 2011, when there were 222 cases of measles. This would be the most since 1996, when there 500 confirmed instances. Of the 159 2013 cases, more than two-thirds took place in three isolated outbreaks in areas where citizens don’t vaccinate against the disease. Many people in these communities object to the vaccinations on moral, religious, and philosophical grounds. The remaining cases are due to visitors from countries and regions where the virus is more common.
Before the advent of widespread vaccination in the 1960s, there were hundreds of thousands of cases in the U.S. alone. The fact that these outbreaks are occurring in areas that are geographically distant from one another, and that have no connection to each other, is concerning to authorities. This isn’t a widespread outbreak or a pandemic, but the fear of such a situation arising is becoming a more realistic concern.
Dr. Buddy Creech, an expert in infectious disease at Vanderbilt University, says, “This is very bad. This is horrible…The complications of measles are not to be toyed with, and they’re not altogether rare.” One to three children out of 1000 who contract measles in the U.S. will die from the disease. 40% of measles patients under the age of five have to be admitted to the hospital. Measles also commonly leads to cases of other illnesses, like pneumonia and encephalitis. Because the disease has become so rare, experts worry that younger doctors might not immediately recognize the symptoms, or know how deal with them in a timely manner.
92% of the 2013 cases occurred in individuals not vaccinated. 58 of these arose in New York State, in a community where many inhabitants refuse to inoculate based on religious objections. Babies are by far the most at risk for measles. Even if parents intend to vaccinate, they can’t until the child’s first birthday, so they are equally in harms way.
Creech says, “I hope that those who are vaccine hesitant or vaccine avoidant realize there are consequences to their actions…None of us lives in isolation.”