Measles Attacks!

measles-nb51
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

Measles is hot again. First the good news: a recent World Health Organization report found that, worldwide, 9.6 million lives were saved in the last decade because of redoubled vaccine efforts.

But here in the Unites States, measles is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. saw more measles in 2011 than at any time since 1995. Usually the U.S. has about 60 annual cases; last year it had 222.

While that number may seem inconsequential compared with colds (10 million new cases annually), salmonella (1.2 million), or HIV (50,000), the reasons for measles’ mini-spike are particularly troubling. For measles, we have an effective vaccine, sufficient vaccine supplies, and an infrastructure in place to deliver the shots.

Measles is on the rise in the U.S. for the exact opposite reason it is dropping globally. Here, as well as in Europe and other resource-rich places, many people hate vaccination. Almost all of the 2011 U.S. cases developed in or were spread by unvaccinated Americans traveling to Europe and elsewhere, or about-to-be-sick travelers visiting the U.S. from abroad.

The number of vaccine-averse people is difficult to estimate, but only 90 percent of the U.S. population is vaccinated according to specification. In that other 10 percent is a mix of those who forgot, those whose doctor forgot, and those who spurned their shots outright. Many refuseniks cite side effects as their primary concern, yet their worry does not diminish when such connections are disproved, as with autism. Nor does the reappearance of a near-vanquished infection in under-vaccinated communities ring a reality-based bell.

For these folks, and their 200-year-old forebears, vaccines are bad because they are not “natural.” This is true, but isn’t the point of civilization to rise above the blunt cruelty of nature? To arrive at some higher ground where we, and not Mother Nature, can call a few shots? Those wanting pure nature might prefer to watch a lion shred a wildebeest for lunch, or chase a tornado as it levels mobile homes in Oklahoma. That’s nature at its purest: disinterested, timeless, unfazed by suffering.

One of nature’s charter members is measles, which, even with WHO’s impressive efforts, still kills hundreds of thousands of children annually. Its victims die a slow, miserable, natural death as the virus overwhelms every organ within a few weeks, culminating in respiratory failure. Vaccination has saved tens of millions of lives, more than any other medical invention. It is one of the few health-care heroes out there. Wouldn’t it be more natural for us to be thankful?

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