Almost exactly 15 years ago, top officials of the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention met in Atlanta to strategize for what would have been one of the most remarkable public health victories in history: the eradication of measles, one of the most infectious microbes known to humankind. By the mid-1990s, widespread use of the measles vaccine had halted transmission of the virus among residents of the United States and Britain. A CDC report noted that the major obstacle to eradication was that public and political support would wane as fears of the disease receded. There was no mention of parental concern that the measles vaccine might actually be harmful.
Today, that fear — specifically, a misplaced anxiety that the measles component of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism — has become one of the main impediments to stopping the spread of the disease in North America and Western Europe. Last month, the CDC announced that 118 measles infections were reported in the United States in the first 19 weeks of the year. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it represents a worrisome uptick, and it puts us on track to hit 300 cases in 2011, compared with an average of around 50 from 2001 through 2008.
Outbreaks have ranged from the Northeast to the Pacific Northwest, from the Gulf Coast to Southern California. Because of how easily measles can spread, attempts to contain even a single case can require enormous effort: On Wednesday, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene announced that it was investigating whether a lone traveler to the state had exposed people to the disease at a grocery store, a liquor store, a high school graduation ceremony, an Applebee’s and a Baltimore Orioles game.
Since the autism-MMR canard was introduced by a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield in 1998, there have been dozens of studies by scientists around the world showing that it does not have any validity. But once fear is injected into a population, it can be difficult to eradicate, and some parents are still choosing to delay some vaccines and skip others altogether. For example, between 2005 and 2010, the rates of unvaccinated children doubled in New York and Connecticut and a recent investigation found 200 schools in southern California at risk for outbreaks because of the number of parents who were choosing not to immunize. That the concern about a possible autism-vaccine connection remains so pervasive makes clear that the efforts to combat this misinformation have been inadequate. We need to fix the way we teach parents about vaccinations — and one way to do that is to start before they actually become parents.
Three years ago, I began work on my book “The Panic Virus,” about the recent controversies regarding vaccines and autism. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that virtually everyone involved in this issue is frustrated. Pediatricians are exasperated at the amount of energy they spend addressing specious concerns, public health officials are discouraged by the rise of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases, and families who believe that their children were injured by vaccines feel forsaken by their doctors and their government.