News about a disease that should no longer exist

Measles shouldn’t be making the news anymore. Why? Because the disease shouldn’t really even exist. Many experts agree that if most people were fully vaccinated against measles it could be eradicated from earth. As the media widely reported this week, measles outbreaks are increasing and even the United States and Canada are battling the biggest measles outbreaks in well over a decade.

a disease that should no longer existWhile these outbreaks have been occurring for several months now, media interest was sparked by a series of revealing papers on measles, published last week at the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s annual meeting. These highlighted new data from the 2011 North American outbreaks.

The big message? Those who aren’t vaccinated were responsible for the vast majority of measles cases. Of the 212 people studied who were infected by measles in the US in 2011, 86% had not been vaccinated or their vaccination status was not known.

Controlling measles is also hugely expensive. One study showed that one Utah outbreak affecting nine people cost $300,000 to control.

Most seriously, measles is a highly infectious and dangerous disease. One third of the American measles patients were hospitalised. In Europe, where more than 26,000 cases of measles have been recorded in 2011, 8 people have died, 24 have suffered encephalitis and almost 1,000 had pneumonia.

USA Today’s Liz Szabo was one of the first to write on the IDSA measles studies, sparking more media and social media interest – rarely has “measles” been so highly rated in Twitter. CNN’s senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen reported on the American outbreak this morning and CNN’s reporting has also been replicated widely, with more American television following the story throughout the day. (Note: the CNN video report includes some information about infants that is not entirely correct. While infants can be at risk of measles, most are protected through immunity conferred by their mother’s antibodies. For more on the recommended vaccination of infants see the CDC’s measles vaccination information:

a disease that should no longer existMedia interest in the large outbreak in Quebec, which has been ongoing for months, also hit a high today with CBC reporting on Quebec’s plans for a province-wide vaccination campaign as it battles an outbreak of more than 750 cases.

But the good news is that most North Americans are vaccinated. Before widespread use of the vaccine, three to four million Americans were infected by measles each year, and 48,000 were hospitalised. Experts underscore that because of vaccination protection today, the North American outbreaks have been relatively small. “Quick public health response limited the spread of the disease,” said Huong McLean, PhD, an epidemiologist at the CDC. “But the more unvaccinated people there are in a community, the more difficult it is to control an outbreak.”

New Zealand knows this too well. Early this week media reported that Auckland public health authorities decided to stop counting every measles case because there were too many to track. New Zealand has also put new vaccination measures in place to rapidly increase protection and stop the outbreak.

Last week’s IDSA studies also provoked more debate about vaccination, because many people who choose not to vaccinate their children continue to have misconceptions about vaccines. On the popular New York Times Motherlode blog, Jenny Anderson asked the question ”Do you vaccinate your kids? Are you O.K. with others choosing not to?” Read the comments section of the post to see what parents think.

a disease that should no longer existOf course, the most grave issue for measles is the lack of access to the inexpensive measles vaccine for kids in poorer countries. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo this year there are well over 100,000 measles cases. Families affected by the Horn of Africa crisis are losing their children to measles, which Doctors Without Borders says combined with malnutrition is “the main killer of children in Somalia.” They had to stop their measles campaign last week because conflict made it impossible to continue.

The Measles Initiative is dedicated to reducing deaths from measles and help the world to achieve the goal of a 95% reduction in measles deaths by 2015. The new awareness in richer countries about this old, dangerous but preventable disease should help spur new actions to stop measles worldwide. We hope that media will be writing about measles twenty years from now only to celebrate its elimination from earth.

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