Americans are receiving an unfortunate education these days in epidemiology and the spread of infectious disease. We’ve hit a 25-year high in the number of measles cases, with more than 700 cases, and that was just in the first four months of the year, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention More than 500 of those have occurred in the New York area, mostly among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
One area newly affected is Oakland County, Michigan, not because a resident there had gone to a foreign country where the highly contagious disease is still endemic. No, a traveler from New York passed through, not realizing he was infected. He met with people to raise money for charity, attended religious services and ate out. He spread the disease to other unvaccinated people who in turn spread it to yet more. As a result, dozens of people in Michigan have been sickened.
And the traveler who did the infecting? He himself was infected because of another traveler who caught the measles on a visit to Israel, which has been experiencing a large measles outbreak, and spread the disease in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities around New York. This is how disease works in the absence of vaccination.
Could an infected person be headed next to your community? Is the vaccination rate for measles where you live at 96 percent or higher? That’s the level needed to ensure that a couple of cases don’t grow into an outbreak – and that people too young or medically fragile for the measles vaccine are protected by the immunized people around them.
This is National Infant Immunization Week, a time when we remember the devastation wrought by various diseases in the past. Many of those diseases have been quelled to near-nonexistence because of vaccines. Those vaccines especially protect the babies and very young children among us who are particularly vulnerable until they are fully vaccinated. That’s just one reason why infants and young children should be vaccinated according to the CDC’s recommended schedule.
Polio crippled and killed thousands of American children in the middle of the 20th century before the vaccine was developed. Whooping cough, mumps, tetanus – all of these and many more are preventable through safe and effective vaccination that begins in infancy
In fact, perhaps the best example of how great vaccines can be is the smallpox vaccine, which did such a good job that it rendered itself unnecessary. The disease, which killed 300 million people worldwide in the 20tth century alone, was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980, the result of a global vaccination campaign. As a result, people are no longer vaccinated against the disease.
Measles, the disease that is showing up in disturbing numbers this year, killed 400 to 500 Americans every year and led to the hospitalization of 48,000 more, until the vaccine became available in 1963. It is one of the most contagious diseases around; an unvaccinated person who comes into contact with a contaminated surface, even an hour after the infected person was there, has a 90 percent chance of being sickened.
For a vaccinated person, that figure is only 3 percent.
Why would we allow a potential killer to make a comeback and threaten young babies and other vulnerable people?
Babies generally are not vaccinated against measles until they are 1 year old, which means they are without protection from measles if they come into contact with an infected person – say, a traveler from an area with an outbreak, or the friend of a big brother or sister who isn’t vaccinated. Let us remember during National Infant Immunization Week that robust vaccination rates beginning in infancy protect us, our communities and the babies who depend on us to keep them from avoidable harm.