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Measles trend is worth watching

By Graham Briggs Olmsted County Public Health directorMay 19, 2019

Olmsted County Public Health is currently following a concerning national trend around measles.

More than 700 cases of measles have been identified in 23 states so far this year, the most cases since the early 1990s in this country, and it is only May. Last month, two cases were diagnosed in Iowa, just a few hours’ drive from Rochester.

While modern air travel always means measles is just a plane ride away, the cases in Iowa bring the reality of this national outbreak closer to home.

Vaccinations are one of the great public health victories over the last century. Prior to the vaccine era, infectious diseases like diphtheria, smallpox and polio maimed and killed tens of thousands of people, mostly young children, every year in the U.S.

Take polio for example. In 1954, the year before a vaccine became available, this country reported an average of more than 16,000 people succumbing to lifelong paralysis due to poliovirus infection, with another 2,000 dead. Smallpox used to kill one-third of the people that caught it.

Public health efforts successfully eradicated both of these diseases from the U.S. by 1980. In fact, deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases have decreased over 99 percent in the U.S. since the vaccinations became routine.

Measles is another example of a disease that vaccination has impacted. The U.S. eliminated transmission of measles in 2000, almost 20 years ago. In the 1950s, before vaccine, 3 million to 4 million Americans, mostly children, got the measles every year; about 50,000 were hospitalized, and 400 to 500 people died every year.

So why is the U.S. experiencing a measles outbreak now?

Unfortunately, a decrease in childhood vaccination across the country is the driving factor. This is based, in part, on an infamous and discredited study that suggested the MMR vaccine could lead to developmental disorders. It cannot be stated enough: This study’s conclusions were wrong. In fact, after the study was proven to be fraudulent, the physician involved with it had his license revoked.

Experts have since looked multiple times and have found NO association between autism or other illnesses in children being vaccinated.

Most of the current measles cases across the country are in unvaccinated Americans, including about 100 children younger than 1 who are too young for the vaccine.

The alarming trend of reduced vaccination in children puts the unvaccinated and other high-risk individuals in significant peril. In addition to protecting your own children from the consequences of illness, vaccination programs protect all of us. When you vaccinate your family, you not only protect them, but you also shield infants who are too young, immune compromised people, and those who can’t take the vaccine due to medical reasons.

Let’s hypothetically say a case of measles wanders through a store here in Rochester.

If everyone else in that store is vaccinated, the virus has nowhere to go and therefore can’t spread into our community. This measles case then leaves the store without putting anyone else at risk. This idea is called “herd immunity” and it is what protects communities from outbreaks.

The key is working together to make sure our communities are well vaccinated before measles finds its way into our county. The current trend across the country is alarming, but we can reduce this threat locally. Have a discussion with your medical provider about the measles and make sure you understand your immune status.

If you are delaying vaccination, consider moving the MMR vaccine to the top of the list due to the current situation. It takes a little effort from all of us to prevent a public health emergency with the potential for severe impacts to our most vulnerable residents.

Given the choice to live in the pre- or post-vaccine era, I, for one, will take the latter.

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