Just a few months ago, the Americas were declared free of endemic measles, meaning that the only outbreaks of measles seen in this hemisphere today have been caused by individuals infected with the virus elsewere and visiting or returning to the Americas and spreading it here. It's no longer a locally transmitted disease.
And that's huge.
It’s an extraordinary achievement brought about by the North and South America's strong immunization programs, though it’s also one that could be undone if vaccine hesitancy causes too many parents to shy away from the two-dose measles-mumps-rubella vaccination.
One thing about the extreme rarity of measles in the United States is that it makes forgetting easy. Too few Americans remember what a killer measles was — and still is, outside the US, where 134,000 children died of measles during 2015 alone.
That’s close to 400 children every day, according to a recent study by the World Health Organization.
In a way, though, the statistics attest to the extraordinary power of the measles vaccine to prevent death and suffering: The same WHO report noted that the lives of more than 20 million children were saved from 2000 to 2015 by a worldwide immunization effort, according to the online publication Science Alert. The deaths that continue to occur aren’t from failures of the life-saving measles vaccine; rather, they represent obstacles faced by a global immunization effort in getting the vaccine to all the children who need them.
That number is so extraordinary, it deserves a second look: 20 million children saved, well over a million children every year.
About a fifth as many measles deaths occur among children worldwide because of the vaccine.
WHO, in partnership with several other organizations, launched a massive global effort in 2001 to eradicate measles. Some 1.8 billion children were vaccinated. This recent study compared the number of people who died in 2015 with the numbers who died annually before the immunization effort began and used those figures to determine the total number of lives saved.
"Making measles history is not mission impossible," Robin Nandy, UNICEF immunization chief, said in a statement released by WHO. "We have the tools and the knowledge to do it; what we lack is the political will to reach every single child, no matter how far. Without this commitment, children will continue to die from a disease that is easy and cheap to prevent."
But efforts to continue the campaign have been stymied in some countries. In 2015, about 20 million babies didn’t get their measles shots. According to the WHO report, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan accounted for half of the unvaccinated infants and 75% of the 134,000 measles deaths.
Fortunately, no one died in the U.S. measles outbreak that occurred in 2015, when the illnesses of more than 120 people were linked to visits to Disneyland. At least one child, an 11-year-old, was hospitalized. Almost everyone stricken was unvaccinated or had received just one dose of the two-dose course.
As mild as the outbreak was, compared with the global toll of measles, it served as a wake-up call to California residents that declines in vaccination rates could have real consequences for public health. Shortly after the outbreak, a poll by an independent, non-partisan think-tank found that two-thirds of Californians supported mandatory vaccination of children attending public school, and the Legislature passed a law requiring the vaccines for all school children except those with medical conditions that make them ineligible for vaccination, making it only the third state in the country not to allow non-medical exemptions.
Perhaps reminders of what a killer measles is will make more Americans aware of how lucky we are to have banished it — and make them more determined to make sure it can’t regain a foothold on our continent.
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