The 2018 measles outbreak keeps spreading through Europe and America. Learn about the causes and the role of the anti-vaxxer movement in this.
"We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 mg of tetracycline every 12 hours... Abandoning science means abandoning much more than air conditioning, CD players, hair dryers, and fast cars." -Carl Sagan
Three months ago, the World Health Organization revealed that during the first six months of this year, over 41,000 Europeans contracted measles, and 37 died from the disease. In contrast, during 2016, there were only 5,273 cases in Europe: a jump of over 700% in just two years, over only half the time. The reason, most experts agree, has to do with the anti vaxxer movement, that keeps growing at both sides of the Atlantic.
What exactly is measles?
According to the World Health Organization, measles is "a highly contagious viral disease. It remains an important cause of death among young children globally, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine. [...] Measles is transmitted via droplets from the nose, mouth or throat of infected persons."
"Initial symptoms, which usually appear 10–12 days after infection, include high fever, a runny nose, bloodshot eyes, and tiny white spots on the inside of the mouth. Several days later, a rash develops, starting on the face and upper neck and gradually spreading downwards," says WHO on its website.
The high risk of a worldwide measles outbreak
Measles, a disease that was thought to be under control in Europe (with over 95% of vaccination reach) has shown an increase of 400% in relation to last year. This number has raised alarms all over the continent, but especially in Italy and Romania, the countries that have registered most cases, and where authorities are already asking parents to speed up the shots calendar and take children between 6 months and one year to get the triple viral shot to stop the outbreak before it gets worse.
In America, the Center For Disease Control has already registered at least 107 cases of measles, most of these in people that have gone unvaccinated. At least eight other countries have issued a health warning: Antigua and Barbuda, Canada, Colombia, Uruguay, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela.
In the last years, the number of people in Europe and America who intentionally avoid getting vaccines (or avoid getting their children vaccinated) due to religious or personal beliefs has been on the rise. These individuals are also known as anti-vaxxers. The rate of vaccinated population required to keep measles infections from spreading has to be over 95%.
But, who are these anti-vaxxers and are they to blame for this outbreak?
The current anti-vaccination movement (whose followers are known online as anti-vaxxers) began in 1998, when former physician Andrew Wakefield published a fraudulent study linking the MMR vaccine (that protects against measles, mumps, and rubella) to autism. After an investigation, the UK medical register decided to revoke Wakefield's medical license due to his multiple fraudulent claims in the study. His motivation for falsifying the study seems to have been financial, since he had just patented an alternative measles vaccine and was trying to promote it.
All subsequent research has found no link between vaccines and autism, but the damage Wakefield did endures, and there is now a strong -and, unfortunately, growing- online community who promote his ideas and actively refuse to get their children vaccinated.
So, are these so-called antivaxxers to blame for this outbreak's severity? And if so, what can we do?
According to Matt Ferrati, epidemiologist at Penn State University, "At the very least, it's clear that this outbreak is due to under-vaccination in Europe. And the fall in vaccination rates "is the main factor leading to the outbreaks," according to Anca Paduraru, spokesperson of the European Commission in Brussels.
Governments and health agencies all over the world are working hard to contain the threat and stop the spread of the disease, but the misinformation spread by multiple websites and social media groups is hard to counter with hard facts. In the meantime, the best personal approach is to follow the instructions of your medical provider and get your shots!
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