Above: Image © yangna, iStockphoto.com

If you don’t know what measles are, you’re probably not alone. Most likely you have never heard of the measles or had the measles because you have been vaccinated to keep you from getting the disease. Measles (see backgrounder) is a very contagious viral disease that used to infect most children across Canada. Before there was a vaccine for measles about 300 000 people in Canada contracted the disease each year, with major epidemics occurring every 3-4 years. Fortunately, measles has been a preventable disease in Canada for 50 years. The first measles vaccine was introduced in Canada in 1963. Within a few years of its introduction, the vaccine essentially wiped out measles in North America.

Did you know? The American microbiologist Maurice Hillman (August 30, 1919 – April 11, 2005) developed over 40 vaccines, including those that prevent measles, mumps, rubella, Haemophilus influenzae type b, hepatitis A, hepatitis B and chickenpox.

Unfortunately, the reputation of the measles vaccine became tarnished in 1998 when Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a research paper in the medical journal The Lancet. In this paper, Dr. Wakefield claimed that the measles vaccine was linked to the occurrence of autism in children. As is the case in scientific research, this led other researchers to further examine the vaccine for this possible side-effect. No other researcher could reproduce or verify the connection to an increased incidence of autism. Later investigations into Wakefield’s research discovered that his research was fraudulent (faked) and unethical. In 2010 Wakefield’s research was completely discredited by the British Medical Journal (See Fraudulent Research).

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the measles vaccine story. In the spring of 2014, Canada had a number of outbreaks of measles, mainly in British Columbia and Alberta. Why did this happen? It is believed that the measles virus was reintroduced into Canada via infected people traveling to Canada from another country, possibly the Philippines, where there was a serious epidemic of measles at that time.

Did you know? Routine childhood immunization for measles involves two doses of measles-containing vaccine (MMR or MMRV).

Should you be worried about getting the measles? As long as you have been properly vaccinated for measles, an encounter with a measles-infected person should pose no threat. However, some specific groups of people in British Columbia and Alberta have not had their children vaccinated against measles for philosophical reasons or reasons outlined below. In unvaccinated populations the disease can spread quickly. As a result these provinces are seeing spikes in the incidence of measles cases that have not been experienced for the past 20 years. Similarly, in the United States the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported 288 cases of measles for the first five months of 2014. This was the most cases for any year since 1994! Outside of North America, a major outbreak of measles in Swansea, Wales, led to over 1 000 reported cases in April 2014. Medical experts in Swansea reported that there were up to 50 000 unvaccinated 10-18 year olds in the region. With such large numbers of unvaccinated youth, the potential for an outbreak of epidemic proportions is significant. Aside from the public health effects, such an outbreak would have a big economic impact as people miss work due to illness in their family. A measles outbreak would also tie up important medical resources that could be used for better purposes than stopping the spread of a preventable disease.

So, with a proven solution to measles infections, why are people not getting routine vaccinations? Several celebrities, most notably Jenny McCarthy, have used their personal notoriety and the popular media to crusade against the measles vaccine. These people use Wakefield’s fraudulent research and other dubious pseudoscience theories as so-called ‘scientific evidence’ of a measles vaccine-autism connection. Since 2007, McCarthy has repeatedly claimed that measles vaccines are linked to autism. She also suggests that people should have the right to opt out of vaccination programs and establish their own schedules for vaccinations. This message has created a fear and distrust of vaccines among a growing number of people, and also threatens the effectiveness of vaccination programs, which need as many people as possible to get vaccinations in order to work.

Is this fear of vaccines the message that the public is hearing and believing, even though sound and thorough scientific evidence has repeatedly demonstrated this to be untrue? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks this is exactly what is happening. The AAP have taken a reactive and direct approach to educating parents about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines in their publication Addressing Common Concerns of Vaccine-Hesitant Parents.

Messages in the media can spread both accurate information and also very influential and powerful misinformation. Anti-vaccination campaigns have put public health in real danger, as shown by the recent increase in measles outbreaks. Although it is possible to protect yourself from the measles, how can you protect yourself from misinformation in the media? Too bad there isn't a vaccination for that!

References

CBC News. Measles outbreak declared in Calgary, Edmonton and central Alberta

CBC News. 24 March 2014. Measles outbreak mostly contained at 228 cases: Fraser Health

Immunize.ca. Measles: Questions and Answers

National Post. ‘Clueless’ actress Alicia Silverstone says parents should skip vaccinations, avoid diapers in new book

National Post. Measles outbreak worsening as U.S. officials say number of cases is most in nearly 20 years

Public Health Agency of Canada. Canadian Immunization Guide

Public Health Agency of Canada. Public Health Notice: Measles

The Guardian. Measles cases hit 20-year high in US, CDC reports

The New Yorker. Jenny McCarthy’s Dangerous Views

Time. Jenny McCarthy on Autism and Vaccines

Laura Brown

Laura is an Education Specialist with Let’s Talk Science. With a background in agricultural sciences and visual arts, she is interested in most everything, from pigs to Picasso! She developed her love of science and technology from her parents and teachers.

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