By Maya Hariz
Measles is a very infectious disease caused by the rubella virus. Easily spread through sneezing, coughing and any contact with infected mucus or saliva. Measles can cause blindness, brain damage, and even death. Cases of measles in Europe have reached the highest this decade, according to the World Health Organization. Three years ago there were just over 5,000 cases of the disease. Last year (2017), there were 24,000. Now the numbers have risen to 41,000, and that’s just six months into the year (2018).
Smitha Mundasad, a BBC health correspondent, says “Some people think measles is just a rash, but the problem is it can be so much more than that. It can lead to really serious complications things like brain swelling, meningitis, blindness and liver problems to name just a few.”
Experts blame the surge of measles infections on a drop in the number of people being vaccinated, and the World Health Organization is calling on European countries to take action. As a result of the vaccine working so efficiently, individuals are inclined to turn a blind eye to the very real complications of measles, and maybe then thinking “this isn’t a serious disease, why would I need a vaccine?” said Smitha Mundasad.
The anti-vaccine movement provides an obstacle to the vaccination process. The movement has been around since 1796 and the smallpox vaccine, but bolstered in the late 90’s when gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield made a baseless and disproven link between the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and autism.
Twenty years ago, some now completely discredited research published in the Lancet medical journal, studied 12 children, sparked fears that the MMR vaccine may somehow be linked to childhood behavioral such as autism.
The vast overwhelming majority of scientists and medics around the world have disproved this theory with sufficient evidence. In fact, Andrew Wakefield was later struck off from the medical register and the Lancet withdrew the study and said it shouldn’t have been published. However, it did add to the anti-vaccination movement.
There are experts that say that, as a result of this information, vast amounts of children around the world would not get vaccinated, many getting measles as a consequence.
The problem is, now that social media can spread these bits of misinformation more widely, public health experts are really worried that some parents may just be hearing these more skeptical voices and not hearing the important messages they’re putting out: that vaccines can save lives, and have been given safely to millions of children worldwide.
The World Health Organization says the measles vaccine alone saved more than 20 million lives in the last two decades. Of course, there are many reasons beyond misinformation as to why people don’t use vaccines. Some religious sects discourage such medical intervention.
Some groups distrust their government, and some people simply can’t get hold of them. Another reason some pockets of communities and some countries aren’t getting the vaccine is that the infrastructure simply isn’t there. The healthcare system isn’t set up well enough to provide the vaccine to those who need it.
A skepticism of vaccination has been touted by many populist leaders, tapping into an anti-establishment sentiment which resonated with many people. In France, Marine le Pen of the National Rally Party spoke out against mandatory vaccination.
Another example of people who protest against vaccines is that in Italy, where the incidence of the disease has risen a few hundred cases in 2015 to several thousand cases a year. Both parties in the populist coalition pledged to repax vaccine laws – a promise they are looking likely to follow through on.
The issue with vaccines is that they work on a principle called ‘herd immunity’, and this case that means that 95% of the population needs to have had the vaccine and have been immunized in order for the community to be fully protected. So some experts say that, while choosing not to give a child a vaccine may be an individual choice, it is putting other people at risk, making them vulnerable to a disease that could ultimately be fatal.
Vaccines are one of the biggest success stories of modern medicine. Experts say they have saved millions of children from devastating childhood diseases. Take the polio virus, which at its peak left a thousand children a day paralyzed around the world, or smallpox, which would cause an estimated two million deaths every year if it were still around. 37 people have already died from measles in Europe this year. That’s 37 deaths that could have been prevented with a vaccine.