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Measles, Mumps And Polio, Oh My! Anti-Vaxxers Bring Back Diseases, Nothing's Changing Their Minds

Typhoid Vaccination
Library of Congress CALL NUMBER: LC-USW36-828 [P&P] Transfer from U.S. Office of War Information, 1944.

In April of last year, a North Carolina resident developed a fever and rash shortly after returning from a trip to India. He had contracted measles abroad, and by the end of May, the North Carolina Division of Public Health identified 22 more cases of measles in the area. Many of those infected, including the initial patient, had not been vaccinated against the disease.

This was the largest outbreak of measles in North Carolina in over 20 years, and we weren’t alone. In 2013, there were 11 outbreaks across the country with a total of 189 cases, marking it as the second largest number of outbreaks since measles was eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. A little over a quarter of the outbreaks were traced to unvaccinated individuals who had picked up the virus while traveling abroad. The disease, which is highly contagious, is then spread through actions like sneezing and coughing.

Polio Vaccination 1957
Credit Ingemar Berling/Pressens Bild
Polio Vaccination 1957

Measles isn’t the only viral infection making a comeback these days. Just yesterday, health officials announced that 28 people have now been affected by an outbreak of mumps at Ohio State University, and in 2010, over 9,000 people contracted “whooping cough” in California which led to the death of ten babies

There’s even concern that polio may re-appear.

Over the past few months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been trying to manage an outbreak of polio cases in Syria that resulted from the war’s disruption on vaccination programs. In today’s age of international travel, it’s only a matter of time before polio hops into our country. Indeed, it may have already done so - there have been 20 cases of polio-like infections reported among California children in the past year and a half.

The good news is vaccines for all of these diseases have been around since the 1970s, and they work. The bad news is that vaccination rates have dropped in the last decade in a large part due to the anti-vaccination movement. Though all of the reasons cited by “anti-vaxxers” including fears about vaccines causing autism or containing high levels of toxins have been debunked, the misunderstanding persists.

A recent study published in the medical journal Pediatrics presents more bad news. The study conducted a randomized trial to test four different ways of educating parents on the need and benefits of vaccinations, and the results were alarming:

  • None of the interventions successfully increased the parents’ intention of vaccinating their children.
  • Worse, some of the interventions, such as showing pictures of children suffering from the preventable diseases, actually increased parents’ fear of vaccination side effects. 

​The study highlights a frightening public health issue. Protection against these deadly diseases depends on a significant portion of the population being vaccinated, and if people won’t (or can’t due to weakened immune systems) troubling times may be ahead.

Nancy Wang is WUNC's very first Digital Intern. Nancy will graduate in May 2014 from UNC's School of Medicine. Nancy is headed to Stanford to do her residency in June. She will specialize in urology. Nancy is a skilled writer and is passionate about medical/science journalism. She contributes to The Charlotte Observer and North Carolina Health News among other outlets.
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