A public health emergency is unfolding in the Pacific Northwest, and it was totally preventable.
A measles outbreak has sickened at least 41 kids and young adults in Clark County, Washington, along with a man from the Seattle area and someone in Oregon. One person has been hospitalized, and the governor of Washington has declared a state of emergency.
So far, none of the patients whose immunization status has been confirmed got their measles vaccination.
It wasn’t always this way. State records in Washington show that during the 2004-05 school year, vaccination rates for kindergartners in Clark County were above 91%. But during the 2017-18 school year, Clark County youngsters entering kindergarten had an immunization rate of 76.5%.
Back in that 2004 school year, the vaccination rate was "getting close" to a threshold for herd immunity (around 95%), Clark County public health director Alan Melnick told Business Insider.
Herd immunity is a level of vaccination at which people who can’t safely get vaccines (because they have HIV, cancer, or other conditions which make their immune systems more fragile) are protected. When enough people around them are immunized, they can live within a kind of protective tribe of disease-free people, and are thus relatively "immune" to illnesses like measles.
But over the last decade, more and more people have been taking advantage of laws in Washington state that allow just about anybody to go to school without their shots for personal or philosophical reasons. Many of those parents are part of a growing movement of "anti-vaxxers" who worry about the safety of vaccines.
"My belief is that they have gone down because of all the misinformation going around," Melnick said of the county’s vaccination rates.
Opposition to vaccines is generally based on junk science that has been endorsed by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy who, with Oprah’s help, falsely hinted that there may be something dangerous about the measles vaccine. Melnick said one need look no further than his county’s official Facebook page to glimpse the rampant (and at times sophisticated) anti-vaccine propaganda that’s spreading around the area.
Here are just a few of the ripest examples.
Before the introduction of measles vaccines in the early 1960s, just about every kid got the illness. Some anti-vaxxers wrongly assert that we’d all be healthier today if we continued to get measles. They’ve even suggested "measles parties."
Getting the measles used to be a rite of passage for children — between 95% and 98% of children got it by their 18th birthday.
Before the vaccine was introduced, some parents tried to get their kids sick with the measles when they were young, since a case of the measles can be more severe when you’re an adult (like chicken pox or shingles).
But even a run-of-the-mill measles case can be torturous. Melnick remembered having it himself as a young child.
"You’re miserable with measles. We’re talking about high fever, we’re talking about being sick for at least a week," he said. "I remember being in bed for a long period of time with the blinds closed, because when you get those red eyes, you get what’s called photophobia." (That’s a sensitivity to light.)
Kids who are younger than 5 and adults over 20 are more likely to develop measles complications; some of the most common include ear infections and diarrhea.
"Even without complications, it is not very pleasant," Melnick added. "I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy."
Unfortunately, a discredited doctor named Andrew Wakefield has led many people to mistakenly believe that there’s a link between autism and the measles vaccine.
One investigation suggested that part of Wakefield’s motivation was money.
Wakefield once "proposed starting a company that could reap huge returns from molecular viral diagnostic tests," journalist Brian Deer found in an investigation published in the BMJ. The scheme "predicted a turnover from Britain and America of up to £72.5m a year," he said.
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Source: Business Insider