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Anti-Vaccine Movement Gains Steam and Fuels Measles Outbreaks: Public Health Watch

MAR 13, 2019 | BRIAN DUNLEAVY
Seen any vaccine-related memes online lately?

If you’re on social media, chances are you’ve encountered some content on measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) prophylaxis in the midst of the usual assortment of cat videos. In fact, several platforms, including YouTube and Facebook, have taken steps to limit the spread of anti-vaccine messages. There have even been suggestions that Russian bots and trolls have been behind some of this content, using the vaccine debate to sow the seeds of discord in public discourse on the subject.

Whatever the source of anti-vaccine messaging, and the scope of its spread, it’s having a significant effect. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), since the start of the year, there have been 228 cases of measles in 12 states: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. The CDC attributes the ongoing outbreak to increases in the number of travelers who get measles while abroad and the further spread of measles in US communities “with pockets of unvaccinated people.”

In addition, as noted in a recent report by NPR, Japan is currently experiencing its worst measles outbreak in decades with 221 documented cases. Now, multiple low-income countries around the world are reporting record numbers of cases. In Madagascar, for example, there have been more than 80,000 cases and 900 deaths related to the disease since September.

“Vaccination is a divisive issue,” Kimberly Thompson, ScD, professor of medicine, University of Central Florida, Orlando, told Contagion® in an interview. “Measles cases are up globally, so even though the US stopped indigenous transmission and our vaccination rates are very high, more un- and under-vaccinated Americans are exposed to measles virus as they travel abroad. The health system needs to emphasize the benefits of vaccines for individuals—notably, that vaccines protect us from horrible diseases and that people who are not vaccinated remain at risk throughout their lives.”

Other countries have already started taking tougher stances on the issue. Recently, Italy, which is in the middle of a measles outbreak, announced that unvaccinated children will be banned from schools, and that parents can face fines of up to €500 ($564 US dollars) if they defy the ruling.

Meanwhile, officials in Costa Rica reportedly had to quarantine a family of French tourists after their unvaccinated son “re-introduced” measles to the Central American nation. France’s ongoing measles outbreak, which included 2269 documented cases in 2017-18, has been linked to a rise in the influence of the “anti-vaxxer” movement within the country.

Overall, though, Ukraine, which is in the midst of a violent civil war, and Brazil have some of the largest increases in the numbers of measles cases in the world since 2017. In fact, Brazil may be at risk of losing its status as a measles-free country. In 2018, the South American nation reported more than 10,000 cases in 11 states—a number that has been attributed to poor vaccine coverage, particularly in remote or poorer areas.

“Outbreaks are disruptive and expensive, and sometimes tragic for families and communities,” noted Dr. Thompson, who is also the president of Kid Risk, an organization devoted to education on the health hazards faced by children globally. “The health and financial costs of measles are preventable, and failing to prevent and rapidly stop the transmission of imported measles viruses means higher costs.”

Which means there’s a financial incentive to shouting down those anti-vaccine messages, online and elsewhere. In other words, those memes may be funny, but they also come at a significant price.
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