Measles outbreak! Vaccine trutherism now officially a public health crisis

Measles are making a comeback. This is why it's so dangerous to laugh off Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari

Topics: measles, vaccines, Health, public health, Jenny McCarthy, ,

Measles outbreak! Vaccine trutherism now officially a public health crisisKristin Cavallari, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey (Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser/AP/Charles Sykes/Paul A. Hebert)

It’s back. Three years after public health officials realized that they had been premature in declaring that measles was eliminated in the U.S., new outbreaks of the highly infectious disease are once again cropping up in cities across the country. And it would be a mistake, epidemiologists warn, not to take this extremely seriously.

As expected, the outbreaks have caused plenty of outrage directed against Jenny McCarthy and the crowd of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Writing in the Daily Beast, a pediatrician using the pseudonym Russell Saunders calls it “sheer lunacy”: “Just over a dozen years ago this illness was considered eliminated in our country,” he writes, “and this year people are being hospitalized for it. All due to the hysteria about a safe, effective vaccine. All based on nothing.”

But for the most part, the outbreaks are also being treated as a cautionary tale – an opportunity to chide anti-vaxxers while reminding parents to make sure that their children are up-to-date on their shots, as KJ Dell’Antonia does at the New York Times’ Motherlode blog:

This outbreak could serve as a reminder that we vaccinate our children, and ourselves, for our own protection and for the protection of our community. A spokesperson for New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center said that the hospital is notifying 600 people who might have been exposed there (in what it calls “probably an excess of caution”). If the majority of those 600 people were not vaccinated, The Times could soon be running a very different article on its front page. Fortunately, statistics suggest that most of those 600 people will have been vaccinated against measles, and 95 percent of them will be immune as a result. That’s lucky for us all, including those who have made a different choice for their children.

It’s true that we’ve yet to see measles outbreaks on a massive scale – what counts as a major outbreak, these days, is the 20 confirmed cases in New York City. The total number of confirmed U.S. cases for this year is in the 70s; in 2013, it reached 187. That’s nothing compared to the 500,000 cases per year that the U.S. saw before the vaccine was introduced in the 1960s. And it’s nothing compared to other parts of the world where measles remains endemic.

But it is a lot compared to the United States in 2000, when we first managed to wipe out the disease. ”I think that these outbreaks are a really huge deal,” said Thomas Sandora, a specialist in infectious diseases at Boston Children’s Hospital. ”Measles is essentially the most contagious disease on the planet” right now, he explained. It becomes contagious four days before the telltale rash appears, and can remain in the air for two hours after an infected individual has left the room. All it takes is for one case of measles to be introduced into a vulnerable group: About 90 percent of people who haven’t been immunized, if exposed, will become infected.

“To me, the fact that we’re seeing more cases is an indication of a problem that is increasing,” agreed Stephen Morse, a professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. Immunization rates in the U.S. remain high at about 90 percent, but they weren’t high enough to prevent measles’ resurgence. In Europe, all it took was for them to dip below 80 percent for the disease to once again become endemic — as if it had never been eradicated in the first place. ”When it reaches a tipping point … when we have to start doing massive immunization campaigns again, the way we did in the 1960s, is very hard to say,” Morse added.

Vaccines are the victims of their own success, the aphorism goes. Morse is old enough to remember what it was like in the pre-vaccination days: As a child, in 1957, he himself became infected. It was only in grad school, he said, that he learned of the serious complications he managed to avoid: they include pneumonia, loss of hearing, brain inflammation and blindness. But in the post-vaccine era, Morse said, our understanding of the balance between the benefits of vaccines and their potential to cause harm has shifted. While no vaccine is 100 percent safe, the side effects are extremely rare. When measles was eliminated, that made vaccination, for some, appear to be the greater risk.

The reminders, so far, haven’t been strong enough: Even with the resurgence of the disease, anti-vaccination attitudes continue to hold strong. In New York, two of the children who contracted measles were refused vaccination by their parents. The same goes for nearly half of the 32 cases contracted in California. And that constitutes an emergency. If enough people continue to prioritize the risks of vaccines over the risks of an epidemic, “we will see measles come back” to an even greater degree, Morse said. “And I think people will feel very differently.” The question now is how much damage they’ll manage to do before that happens.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.


    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...