The 300-plus cases of measles that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recorded in the United States thus far this year don’t sound like many. That’s about one in 1 million Americans.
Yet through just five months, the total for this year has already exceeded the number of cases all last year and is the most recorded since 1996. No less troubling, the pace of this highly contagious respiratory disease hasn’t slackened; cases roughly doubled in May.
That’s not what public health officials envisioned back in 2000. That year, largely because of aggressive immunization efforts, health officials had concluded that measles in the United States had all but been eliminated.
The present outbreak isn’t cause for panic, but concern is warranted, if only because it serves as a reminder of what can happen when people take a once common scourge for granted or when word is spread that vaccinations do more harm than good.
The single largest outbreak in the United States has occurred among Ohio’s Amish community, many of whose members have not been vaccinated. The second largest outbreak has taken place in California. While that outbreak, too, has been linked to unvaccinated individuals, the cause is generally traced to travelers from other countries with measles who transfer it to unvaccinated Americans. A major measles outbreak in the Philippines has taken more than 40 lives. Two cases have been reported in Kansas, both last week in Johnson County.
Another group of current cases involves American travelers, typically in their 20s, who were not vaccinated as young children, often because their parents blocked it or didn’t consider it necessary.
Beginning in the 1960s, children were commonly vaccinated against measles. Before the vaccine was developed, as many as 4 million Americans, mostly young children, contracted it every year. More than 40,000 children every year were hospitalized with it or complications from it, and hundreds died.
Several dozen people in the recent outbreak have been hospitalized, but so far there have been no deaths. That is fortunate.
What’s unfortunate is that countless Americans remain vulnerable, either out of ignorance or choice, to measles and other preventable diseases. It’s easy to single out celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, who has spread false information about the safety of vaccinations and is part of the problem. But she can only convince people who are willing to believe anything.
Ask a health professional, not a celebrity, about measles and vaccinations, and then act accordingly. It could save your life and the lives of loved ones.