Why is measles making a comeback?

There is an interesting and slightly horrifying movement that has attained popularity in today’s society. It is known as the “anti-vaccination” movement. This movement has more-or-less directly caused the return of measles recently, making headlines in New York. According to the CDC, there are about 80-90 cases of measles in the US per year. From 2002 to 2007, the average was roughly 55 cases. From January 1 to October 31, there have been 603 reported cases. This is more than 6 times as many as normal in an average year. Clearly, there is something wrong here. But what is happening? First, we need an understanding of what the measles is.

Measles is a virus. A virus is essentially DNA contained in a protein casing. The protein casing opens up a cell in your body and forces your cell to create copies of the virus. With many viruses, after one has been infected, an immunity to the virus is created, which prevents the virus from doing as much damage as it would in the first encounter with the virus.

The signs of measles, according to the CDC, include high fever, cough, runny nose, and conjunctivitis. Two or three days after these symptoms appear, white spots may appear inside of the mouth. Three to five days after initial symptoms, a rash appears. It starts on the face at the hairline, and can spread down to the legs and arms. At this point, a fever with a temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit may occur. After a few days, the symptoms disappear.

Measles is incredibly contagious. It can spread through the air or live on a surface for two hours outside of the body. When one person has it, 90% of people around that person are likely to get it. If one has been vaccinated against measles, it is unlikely that the disease will develop to cause symptoms, and will likely stop with the person who has been vaccinated by it. This is an important point; if every person was vaccinated against measles, it simply would no longer exist. However, this is an ideal that cannot be attained, even with 100% compliance. Some people have immune systems that are simply too weak to handle a vaccine. These include people who naturally have a poor immune system (e.g. babies and old people), as well as people who have contracted a disease that causes a weakened immune system, such as HIV. However, even if these people cannot be vaccinated, they can be kept safe by a concept known as herd immunity.

Herd immunity is the idea that if the majority of people have been vaccinated for a disease, then they can protect those who have not been vaccinated. This happens because even if one person who has a disease is introduced, they are unlikely to come into contact with someone who has not received the vaccine for it, so these people will be unlikely to contract the disease. This is a big reason why it is important to be vaccinated against viral diseases; if everyone who can be vaccinated gets vaccinated, very few people would be infected, and therefore there would be few deaths. The number of people infected by a given virus should go down over time, and theoretically, the disease would be eradicated. With the measles, as well as with other preventable diseases, this is not what we see.

This is where the anti-vaccination movement comes in. By refusing to get themselves and their children vaccinated, they are inevitably causing many very preventable deaths. What are their arguments? Are they valid? If they aren’t valid, why do people follow them?

Possibly the biggest argument that the anti-vaccine movement uses is that vaccines cause autism. This is simply not true. The initial study by Andrew Wakefield reported a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. The study was published in The Lancet in 1998, was partially retracted in 2004, and was fully retracted in 2010. Andrew Wakefield was found to have conflicts of interest in the results, and manipulated data to prove his findings [2]. So, the most famous study that finds a correlation between autism and vaccinations was falsified. This argument is totally false, and it is unfortunate that it is still used as evidence and spread as misinformation.

Another argument against vaccines is that the vaccines contain “chemicals.” What is a “chemical?” The short answer is anything you can see is a chemical. Water, desks, trees, and the beaker of gas you see in a science fiction movie are all chemical. By saying that vaccines contain chemicals, anti-vaccinators basically say that there is something in them. Looking past the fact that this argument obviously misses the point, it is assumed that one means “manmade chemicals,” or artificial chemicals. The most obvious problem that the argument that natural is better than artificial is that there are plenty of natural substances that are bad for you. For example, viruses. Also, arsenic and cyanide are chemicals made by nature that can kill someone. Another is ethanol, the alcohol that people drink recreationally. The idea that something artificial means that it is automatically dangerous is flat-out wrong. But this argument also misses the mark. What anti-vaxxers really mean is that there are artificial chemicals in vaccines that are put into them to harm you.

Without getting too in depth, viruses have to be weakened before they are used in a vaccine. Some of the substances used to weaken these viruses remain in the vaccine. Much fear-mongering is made over the ingredients of the vaccines, but the truth is that the concentration of these harmful chemicals is so low, that they are harmless. For example, in a study of 85 different vaccines or other injectable biological products, the concentration of metals in the vaccines were “low or undetectable” [3]. In other words, metals that can be harmful at a high concentration are almost undetectable in the vaccines tested, among them the measles vaccine. Doing more research gives similar results for other chemicals that are harmful at high concentrations. People who scare others because of ingredients in vaccines are simply irresponsible or do not know what vaccines do or how they are made.

Many of the other arguments are anecdotal, or ignore some other, sometimes not obvious fact. Some people say “I know someone who has not gotten vaccinated, and they never get sick.” This can be for a variety of reasons; the family has a naturally good immune system, or they are surrounded by people who have been vaccinated, and therefore have no way of contracting the diseases from people around them.

The bottom line is this: vaccines are one of the most successful medical inventions of all time.They save countless lives every year, are incredibly cheap to administer, and are usually covered by insurance. The pros of vaccination vastly outweigh the cons, either real or imagined. Do your fellow human beings a favor, and vaccinate yourself. In doing so, you can feel good about the fact that you are saving lives, and helping yourself, too.

[1] CDC Measles Website: http://www.cdc.gov/measles/index.html

[2] http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/public/news/article148992.ece

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