Every year, the World Health Organization lists its top threats to global health. Alongside usual suspects like air pollution, cancer and heart disease, a newcomer has joined the 2019 edition: vaccine hesitancy.
The anti-vaccine movement has gained momentum in recent years as parents refuse to vaccinate their children out of fear for autism and other side effects. “It’s causing outbreaks of communicable diseases like measles that had vanished from this country,” said Stephen Prescott, M.D., president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
Already in 2019, at least 10 states have reported cases of the measles, which were declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. Outbreaks have recently occurred in New York, New Jersey and the Pacific Northwest.
While usually not often life-threatening, measles brings a widespread rash that covers most of the body. It’s often accompanied by fever, cough, runny nose and other cold-like symptoms.
“In some instances, it can be much more severe and require hospitalization, supportive treatment with fluids and oxygen,” said OMRF’s Prescott, a physician and medical researcher. “If complications become severe, measles can even result in death.”
One complication is viral pneumonia. According to the Centers for Disease Control, as many as 1 in 20 children who get measles will get pneumonia, which can be lethal, especially in the very young. Also, about 1 in 1,000 will develop life-threatening swelling of the brain that can lead to deafness, mental disability and convulsions.
“While severe complications are rare, the more cases there are, the greater the chance of these worst-case outcomes,” said Prescott.
The vaccine is usually administered in two doses: one at 12 to 15 months, and the second between the ages of 4 and 6. The CDC reports this two-dose regimen is 97 percent effective.
“The vaccine works, which is great news considering measles is one of the most highly contagious diseases in the world,” Prescott said, “It is a disease that is incredibly efficient at infecting people, especially young children.”
When an infected person sneezes or coughs, the measles virus enters the air and can infect anyone who comes in contact with the airborne particles – or touches objects or surfaces where the germs have settled.
“A lot of viruses are transmitted this way, but what makes measles more likely to spark an outbreak is that the virus lives for a long time outside of the body,” said OMRF’s Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., an immunologist. “One infected person could go into a classroom, movie theater or daycare, and it puts everyone there at high risk.”
Globally, the World Health Organization reports that between 2000 and 2017, vaccinations prevented an estimated 21.1 million measles deaths.
“Numbers like that are staggering,” said Chakravarty. “I sincerely hope we’re not going to have to learn how dangerous these preventable diseases are the hard way before we correct course.”