This Epidemic Didn’t Need to Happen

“Disheartening” was the word used by the Orange County health officer to describe the fact that a disease that had been all but eliminated in the United States in 2000 is now the cause of an epidemic spreading from Southern California to several other states across the country and into Mexico. NPR’s Melissa Block had asked Dr. Eric Handler his reaction to the situation that had its start before Christmas at Disneyland, carried by one unvaccinated tourist and spread rapidly among several native-born citizens who had not been vaccinated. The highly contagious disease is one that we tended to lump together in our minds with all those childhood ailments that, one by one, were brought under control by the development of a vaccine.

As a young mother, I remember marveling that our children could be protected from diseases that we suffered through in our own childhoods: whooping cough, measles, rubella (German measles), mumps. Once the disease had passed you were pretty much assured of having natural immunity. (My younger brother came down with chicken pox and we both were quarantined, a bold sign on the front door warning others away. I was spared and years later, when both my children had the disease, I cared for them and was again not affected. So when a physician suggested I go for a newly developed anti-shingles vaccine for anyone who’d ever had chicken pox, I could happily decline.)

An earlier NPR report noted that anyone born before 1959 is protected from the current measles epidemic because it would be assumed they’d had the disease as children and carried natural immunity. Before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, the U.S. experienced some four million reported cases a year. In 2000 the number was zero.

And now it’s back. Even before the current epidemic, the CDC reported that 2014 saw a record number of cases — 644 from 27 states. The reason is a growing anti-vaccination movement that finds parents opting out of vaccinations for their children based on fears resulting from a report, since discredited, of a link between inoculations and autism. Major scientific organizations all refute the claims. Now, a generation of doctors who have never seen measles is frantically trying to catch up on the symptoms and treatment of the disease. Untreated or treated late, measles can lead to serious complications, even death.

Measles graphA strongly worded editorial in The Los Angeles Times calls for an end to the practice of allowing parents to opt-out of immunizations requirements for their school-age children on the basis of “personal beliefs.” The outbreak has illustrated “how a highly contagious disease can spread when the vaccination rate falls below the level needed for ‘herd immunity,’” the paper wrote, explaining that herd immunity means “that so many people are immune that the chance of outbreak is low, which protects the few who are not immunized because they are too young to have been fully vaccinated or because they are among the few in whom the vaccine doesn’t ‘take’ or because they haven’t been vaccinated for valid medical reasons.”

As the paper stated in another editorial, “Getting vaccinated is good for the health of the inoculated person and also part of one’s public responsibility to help protect the health of others.”

Once again, we must be reminded that we’re all in this together, folks.

Graph: U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention