By now, most Americans have heard of the trouble in Minnesota after vaccine opponents targeted the Somali community there with myths about autism: Vaccination levels fell to perilous lows, 79 people, mostly unvaccinated children, caught measles, and nearly a third of those were so sick, they had to be hospitalized.
As bad an outcome as that is, it is dwarfed by the tragic situation in Europe. A July report by the World Health Organization points out that 3,300 Italians have caught measles over the past 12 months, and one 6-year-old boy died. Another child died in Germany, one in Portugal. And in Romania, where the medical system is not as sophisticated as in the other three countries, 31 children died of measles.
Germany, Italy and Portugal are developed countries, with robust medical systems—and yet, people are dying of a disease that can be prevented, and has long been prevented, by one of the most effective vaccines around.
“Every death or disability caused by this vaccine-preventable disease is an unacceptable tragedy,” Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe, said in a statement. “We are very concerned that although a safe, effective and affordable vaccine is available, measles remains a leading cause of death among children worldwide, and unfortunately Europe is not spared. Working closely with health authorities in all European affected countries is our priority to control the outbreaks and maintain high vaccination coverage for all sections of the population.”
The discredited, fraudulent claim that the measles vaccine can cause autism gained traction in Europe, especially in Italy. As a result of the large outbreak in Italy, the country has passed a law that children cannot attend public schools if they have not been vaccinated against 10 diseases including measles. There are even fines for parents whose children are already in school but who fail to get them caught up on vaccines. Germany and France are also taking strong new steps to ensure that children are vaccinated.
And as Americans return from summer trips to Europe, public health officials will be keeping an eye out for those whose souvenirs from their trip might include a dangerous virus.
The deaths in Europe should give rest to the idea that measles is “just” a childhood disease and that somehow the vaccine is more dangerous than the illness it does such a good job of preventing.
The first week of August is the kickoff of National Immunization Awareness Month. It’s also the time when parents make plans for their children’s entry to child care or school in the fall. This year, it’s sadly the time to keep the situation in Europe in mind.
Parents have the power to resist the myth-mongers who whisper patently untrue disinformation into their ears. They don’t have to let their children be victims of charlatans, as the children in Minnesota were. Instead, they can choose to protect their children from diseases that cause suffering, side effects and even death.
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