America’s Measles Crisis Amid the Anti-Vaccine Movement

This article was originally published in our Fall 2019 print issue.

The measles vaccine has saved millions of lives since its introduction in the 1960s. The spread of misinformation puts this progress in jeopardy.

In 2000, the CDC announced measles was eliminated in the United States due to a strong vaccination program and school mandates. Fast forward to November 2019, and we now have over 1,250 confirmed cases of measles since the beginning of this year, the greatest number of cases in the U.S. since 1994.

The prevalent anti-vaccination movement and other factors are partly to blame. Measles is the most transmissible virus known to man, with a high potential to be life-threatening. It is a human airborne disease, meaning it can be spread simply through coughing and sneezing and can remain suspended in the air for up to two hours. Currently, two doses of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is 97 percent effective against measles, making it the most powerful vaccine against any pathogen.

Before the measles vaccine was introduced in the 1960s, two to three million deaths occurred globally each year. Despite these statistics, many people today have been under the incorrect impression that it is a trivial disease, contributing to the anti-vaccination movement. This is due to the fact that most people have never witnessed the debilitating and deadly diseases that vaccines protect against. Another contributing factor is the vast spread of misinformation through unreliable media outlets.

This is not a problem of biomedical research, but rather a public health awareness crisis. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who has made significant contributions to HIV/AIDS research and has developed therapies for formerly fatal diseases such as polyarteritis nodosa, weighed in on this issue. He explains that when the level of vaccinations in a community falls below a certain critical level, a phenomenon known as herd immunity weakens.

Fauci best describes strong herd immunity as “even if someone enters into the community who is measles infected, the measles virus will have little opportunity to spread because most of the community is already vaccinated.” In a community, there are certain people with immunodeficiencies who cannot get vaccinated, thus making them highly vulnerable to diseases such as measles. The herd, which is the vaccinated population, protect the vulnerable ones from the spread of the virus. Approximately 93 to 95 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to create an umbrella of protection for this particular disease. Furthermore, since measles is seen throughout the world, we constantly have Americans traveling and bringing back measles into the U.S., making herd immunity critical.

A weakness in herd immunity contributed to the recent measles outbreak in the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. The level of vaccination in that community was down to about 70 to 80 percent, well below the critical level of herd immunity, which was due to the spread of misinformation about the safety of the MMR vaccine among other causes. A child who had visited relatives abroad brought measles back into his neighborhood in Brooklyn, causing one of the worst measles outbreaks that New York City has seen in decades. A total of 654 individuals were infected, causing the city to issue a mandatory vaccination in people living in the four Brooklyn neighborhoods. This led to New York lawmakers creating a new state law in June, which revoked parents’ abilities to refuse immunizations based on religious reasons.

Failures in public health education and communication, the rise of the anti-vax movement, and even the declining measles rate as a result of previous measles vaccination success have contributed to more outbreaks. One of the main concerns of vaccination skeptics is the fear that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism. However, this link is a falsehood that has been debunked multiple times by the CDC and other health professionals. Despite this, Fauci states that the movement continues to exist because of the spread of misinformation through social media and extreme libertarianism. Health departments face the challenge of respecting individual rights and safeguarding the public welfare; therefore, many states allow immunization exemptions for religious and philosophical reasons. The problem with this “opt-out” system is that all parents have to do is simply check a box indicating they do not want their child to receive vaccinations.

As UC Berkeley students, we can help combat this issue by simply spreading knowledge in daily social discourse. Nowadays, information is spread mostly through social media and many people do not fully evaluate the validity of internet articles. It is important to encourage media outlets to prioritize their search results. For example, Pinterest has taken down inaccurate content about immunizations on its platform, and Facebook has introduced a pop-up window connecting the user to the CDC or WHO when searching for vaccine-related content. Truth and evidence-based decision-making are integral to how many of us think; for that reason, we can promote the importance of vaccinations in discussions and social media when the topic comes up. We do not need a better vaccine, says Fauci. We just need people to get vaccinated.