Measles is back and killing thousands, yet anti-vaxxers are winning

Once on the verge of complete eradication, measles is making a huge comeback thanks to an unhealthy dose of fear, fake news and social media misinformation. Vicky Carroll investigates how the anti-vaxxers are dominating in our age of social media

While all eyes were on Trump’s former adviser Michael Cohen’s startling testimony against the president in Washington, a less glamorous – but much more serious – debate was being held elsewhere in America’s corridors of power.

In the US, hotspots of measles outbreaks have sprung up in 10 states, concentrated in areas targeted by active anti-vaccination campaigns. The highly contagious respiratory disease, which causes high fever, cough, runny nose, watery eyes and itchy red rashes, was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. But by February the “significant” rise in cases was declared “a growing public health threat”.

It comes as news that cases of measles, which had been declining steadily until 2016, increased globally last year by 50 per cent – and tripled in Europe – leading the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare it a global health threat. And the WHO has branded so-called ‘anti-vax’ disinformation a key cause of the resurgence of the disease.

Damaging disinformation is being spread from sources close to the White House: the wife of Trump’s communications director Bill Shine prominently tweets anti-vax propaganda, claiming – with zero basis in fact – that childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and chickenpox “keep you healthy and fight cancer”.

Darla Shine has used a hashtag calling on people to bring back #ChildhoodDiseases. Meanwhile, Republican politician Bill Zedler, who has been campaigning against the vaccination of children in Texas, has falsely claimed that measles could be treated with antibiotics, saying: “When I grew up, I had a lot of these illnesses. They wanted me to stay at home. But as far as being sick in bed, it wasn’t anything like that. They want to say people are dying of measles. Yeah, in third world countries they’re dying of measles. Today, with antibiotics and that kind of stuff, they’re not dying in America.”

Doctors were quick to point out that antibiotics cannot be used to treat measles.

Concern among the medical profession about the spread of wrong information such as this is such that Facebook, where many anti-vaxxing myths are shared, has told American politicians it will look into removal of pages that promulgate it.

Alongside wars and lack of access to vaccines in countries such as Ukraine, which is currently one of the worst-affected nations in the world, the WHO identified deliberate spreading of fraudulent information as one of three main reasons for the rapid and worrying escalation of the highly contagious disease. It includes the baseless and now-disproved myth that vaccination against measles, and specifically the combined MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella, can cause autism or bowel disease. France, which has one of the lowest rates of vaccine confidence in the world and one of the worst MMR vaccination rates in Europe, is among the places most gravely affected by the present measles outbreak.

Japan is currently experiencing its worst measles outbreak in a decade,

It is a serious issue: more contagious than Ebola and untreatable once the infection has set in, measles killed almost 1,000 people since September in an outbreak in Madagascar, which has seen 68,000 cases of the disease in six months. The Philippines is in the grip of a measles crisis, with 70 deaths in one month. Japan is currently experiencing its worst measles outbreak in a decade. In England, the NHS reported 259 cases of measles in the whole of 2017 – a figure that rose to 913 in the first 10 months of last year. As MMR vaccination uptake declined, across Europe cases of measles tripled within 12 months to 82,596.

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Anti-vaxxers protesting in Melbourne, Australia. Image: Alpha/Flickr

In Costa Rica, where no native cases had been reported since 2006, measles was reintroduced to the country this year by a five-year-old French child in an anti-vaxxer family, resulting in the entire family being kept in isolation. In Canada, education authorities have been suspending pupils from school until their parents can prove that they have been vaccinated. Such measures are drastic, but could prevent the disease being passed among young people. 

The WHO has estimated that 21 million deaths had been prevented worldwide between 2000 and 2017 because of the combined vaccination. But it has pointed out that there is a very real danger that the world is pedalling backward.

One of the turning points came after those fraudulent claims, published in The Lancet in 1998, made by doctor Andrew Wakefield that the MMR vaccine could cause autism and bowel disease. The claims were subsequently discredited and revoked, and Wakefield found guilty of “dishonestly and irresponsibly” carrying out his research. It resulted in him being struck off and barred from practising medicine in the UK but, undeterred and unrepentant, he went to the USA where he has continued to peddle his anti-vax propaganda.

While the MMR vaccination is normally given to babies at one year old, with a second dose before they start school, the NHS points out that older children and adults, including those who missed out on a second dose of the vaccination, can still be given it.

Latest statistics from the UN last week showed that 98 countries around the globe – including many which had previously eradicated measles – reported a rise in cases in 2018 compared to 2017. Warning of “disastrous consequences” for children if the spread of measles is not contained, Unicef has identified anti-vaccination messages as being one of the main contributing causes. Preventable but not curable and highly contagious, Unicef points out that measles could be eradicated once more with two small jabs. It’s a message worth heeding.

Image: iStock

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