By Alexandra Morris
Lately, when you hear about measles in the news, the reports tend to be grim: outbreaks in 2011 and 2013 in the U.S., parents who are choosing not to vaccinate their children for religious or philosophical reasons. But a new report from the CDC this week paints a bigger – and far more heartening – picture: from 2000 to 2012, 13.8 million deaths were prevented through measles immunizations globally. In other words, a population roughly the size of New England is still alive thanks to the measles vaccine.
Deaths from measles have dropped 78% since 2000. “These figures represent historic lows for estimated measles deaths globally,” said James Goodson, a co-author of the CDC report published in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Since 2000, the Measles and Rubella Initiative – a partnership between various agencies including the CDC and the World Health Organization – has provided over a billion doses of measles vaccinations worldwide.
Measles was eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, but there have been a couple of recent spikes in cases. Just last year, there were three times as many measles infections in the U.S. than in previous years. In raw numbers, that translates to 189 cases, according to the CDC. While that doesn’t seem like a lot, such a highly contagious disease can spread rapidly, especially among people who haven’t been vaccinated.
Countries around the world are also aiming to eliminate measles by 2020 or earlier. Europe, for example, set a goal of measles elimination by 2015. But it doesn’t look like they’re on track to meet that goal, said Goodson. That may be due in part to parents’ fears about the possibility of vaccine side effects.
In 1998, a British medical journal issued a report suggesting the measles vaccine was linked to autism cases, which led to a sharp decline in vaccinations. Although the report was discredited, and later retracted by the journal, parent and anti-vaccine groups continue to fight against routine immunizations.
Misinformation is a major threat to vaccine efforts, say public health officials.
Another issue is that people tend to forget how dangerous measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases can be, especially for children.
If you were born before the measles vaccine was first developed in 1963, you might recall waking up one day with a fever and what felt like a really bad head cold. Before long, the itching started – first just a little on your face and neck, and then suddenly your entire body was covered in a full-blown rash: the surefire sign of a measles infection.
Sadly for many, it doesn’t end there. For every 1,000 children who are infected with measles, 1-2 die from the disease. In developing countries, the numbers are even more terrifying – as many as one in four people will die from a measles infection, largely because of malnutrition.
“Here we have a safe and effective, inexpensive vaccine that’s been available for over 50 years now and it works and we know it can prevent measles,” said Goodson. “Efforts are needed to get the vaccine out to reach all children.”