More than 40,000 people in Europe have contracted measles so far this year, resulting in 40 deaths, according to the World Health Organization — and the United States could soon face a similar predicament.
> The European experience may offer a window on how quickly things can go awry when parents choose not to vaccinate their children, doctors caution.
> Because measles is relatively rare in the U.S., many Americans have no idea of the disease's frightening impact and its stunning contagiousness.
> “We have a very serious situation,” said Dr. Alberto Villani, pediatric infectious disease doctor at Bambino Gesù Pediatric Hospital and the president of the Italian Pediatric Society. “People are dying from measles. This was unbelievable five or 10 years ago.”
In England, where WHO declared measles eradicated just one year ago, the number of cases is rising.
> The reason, experts say, is that in Europe, many parents have opted to skip vaccinating their children. “It’s the main factor leading to the outbreaks,” said Anca Paduraru of the European Commission in Brussels. “It’s unacceptable to have in the 21st century diseases that should have been and could have been eradicated.”
In order to prevent outbreaks of the disease, at least 95 percent of the population must have had at least two doses of the measles vaccine, according to WHO.
But in some areas of Europe, vaccination rates are around 70 percent.
In the U.S., children receive the measles vaccine along with mumps and rubella, and the immunization has been so effective that federal officials declared America measles-free in 2000.
That success might be one reason parents aren't worried about opting out of vaccinations now:
> Many parents are unfamiliar with the havoc measles can wreak because there have been few cases in the U.S. since the vaccine became widely available, said Dr. Jeffrey D. Klausner, a professor of medicine and public health at the University of California, Los Angeles.
> “People don’t see them and so they forget about them or they think the diseases don’t exist anymore,” Klausner said. “They don’t realize their child is at risk for measles meningitis, encephalitis and permanent brain damage.”
Experts say it would not be surprising to see an outbreak of measles in the U.S. in the near future, and that the anti-vaxx movement holds a fair amount of the blame.
> The anti-vaxxers have had such a large impact that “now there is a terrific vulnerability in states like Texas and up in the Pacific Northwest,” [Dr. Peter Hotez, director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine] said. “People forget that before kids were getting vaccinated we had between 400 and 700 deaths from measles annually in the U.S.”