Fever, rash, cough and congestion. These are the hallmarks of measles. Before the beginning of the measles vaccination program in the 1960s, there were 3-4 million cases of measles annually in the United States, almost 40,000 people were hospitalized, over 1000 people developed permanent disability from measles encephalopathy, and almost 500 people died. Every year. Most of these cases happened in children.
Now with vaccination rates falling, we are again seeing outbreaks of measles. Right now, there are measles outbreaks occurring in the South Pacific. It’s estimated that only 30% of the population of Samoa, for instance, have been vaccinated against measles, and they are in the midst of a terrible outbreak right now. Other countries are sending medical supplies, doses of vaccine and health care personnel to help deal with this outbreak.
Samoa is a country with about 200,000 people. 3,149 cases of measles have been reported, 197 people are hospitalized and 42 have died. To give some idea of the magnitude of this outbreak, we can compare to the United States, which has a population of 327.2 million people. This size of an outbreak in the US would result in 5.2 million cases, 322,000 people hospitalized, and 68,712 deaths. Most of Samoa’s deaths have been in children under 4 years of age.
Think about that. Imagine a United States in which almost 70,000 infants, toddlers and preschoolers were killed within a month’s time. Bearing in mind that those deaths are preventable, this outbreak in Samoa is a heartbreaking tragedy.
The good news for the USA is that vaccine coverage overall is still above 90%. However, there are 11 states in which coverage is under 90% and there are pockets where vaccine coverage is much, much lower. Amish people reject most modern medical innovations (including vaccines). Many California communities have vaccine coverage rates at about 50%. This is much lower than what is required to prevent outbreaks of measles.
Measles is the most contagious illness we know. It is a serious illness and potentially fatal. The vaccine is safe, so safe that in 1.5 million people vaccinated in Finland from 1982-1992 no deaths or serious permanent adverse reactions were reported.
If you are not immune to measles and are exposed, you have a 90% chance of getting sick. This is in comparison to influenza, which has about a 50% transmission rate. Parents who choose not to vaccinate their children are making a choice to leave them unprotected against a serious, possibly fatal, horribly contagious illness that is still endemic in parts of the world.
No vaccine is perfectly effective, but the MMR vaccine is pretty close. It eradicated measles, mumps and rubella in Finland in the 1980s with a 12-year, 2-dose vaccination schedule.
Measles is still present in the world. The MMR vaccine is the most effective weapon we have against this illness. Please be sure to vaccinate your children.