In 2014, there were almost 600 cases of measles in the United States from January 1st to August 29th the highest number of cases in the past two decades. In a perspective piece published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Walter Orenstein, MD, and Katherine Seib, MSPH, explain the two key reasons why. First, substantial circulation of the virus still occurs in other countries. Second, an increasing number of American parents are hesitant to vaccinate their children.
Measles is among the most highly contagious viral illnesses. The average person with measles may infect 12 to 18 other people. In order for herd immunity to be established, about 94 percent of the population needs to be immunized. The measles vaccine, which was licensed in 1963, is highly effective in preventing the disease. But as the authors point out, vaccines don't save lives vaccinations do. Vaccines that remain in the vial are completely ineffective. And unfortunately, many vaccines are remaining in the vial as we reported not too long ago. For example, some schools in wealthier southern California neighborhoods have vaccination rates as low as South Sudan.
The authors state that in order to reduce measles transmission and to prevent measles from being reestablished as an endemic disease in the US, we need to globally increase support for improving immunization programs. Vaccines must be available to all who need them especially those traveling to the United States from countries where the disease is prevalent. And in the United States, we must overcome vaccine hesitancy and denial, and convince parents that measles is not a trivial disease. There is overwhelming research showing that vaccines are safe, and now research is needed on how best to address public concerns about vaccine safety. The authors conclude, the lack of apparent measles disease in the United States which is attributable to the enormous success of the U.S. immunization program gives a false sense that there is little or no threat. Efforts are also needed to educate the public that measles is a serious disease, which no one need suffer from, and that vaccines are highly effective in preventing it.