Half of those who contracted measles over the past 15 years were unvaccinated, and in most of those cases the patient (or their legal guardian) refused the vaccination, reports a new study published online earlier this week by the "Journal of the American Medical Association."
The research team, led by Dr. Saad B. Omer, reviewed published reports of measles outbreaks in the United States since 2000 - the year the disease was eliminated from the population - as well as all outbreaks of whooping cough (pertussis) since 1997, when that disease was at its lowest point. The goal was to evaluate the association between vaccination and the epidemiology of these diseases, both of which are preventable.
The authors analyzed a study of national measles data reported to the CDC from 1985 through 1992, which found "unvaccinated children who had a vaccine exemption were 35 times more likely to contract measles compared with vaccinated children. The epidemic curve of measles determined that the resurgence started a year earlier among children with exemptions compared with vaccinated children."
In much of the world people are unvaccinated for the simple reason that vaccines are unavailable or cost too much money. That was not the case in the United States. In fact most of those who contracted measles were offered free or inexpensive vaccines, but they (or their parents) refused them despite having no medical reason to do so. Although vaccine prices have risen in recent years, insurance companies have been required under the Affordable Care Act to completely cover childhood vaccinations since 2011.
Reasons the researchers found for vaccine refusal included personal belief exemptions; specific cultural norms (for example in Amish communities); and religious exemptions. Less often a vaccine could not be provided because of medical or logistical reasons, including that the patient was sick at the time the medication was to be given, or the patient could not physically make it to his or her appointment.
Some parents refuse to have their children vaccinated because of false health concerns raised by anti-vaccination activists such as actress Jenny McCarthy, who in turn based their concerns largely on a since-retracted study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield which seemed to show a link between vaccines and the onset of autism in young children.
Following an investigation Dr. Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal) stated that Wakefield's study could not be replicated and "was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud." Wakefield was stripped of his medical license and recently appeared as a guest speaker on a cruise focusing on conspiracy theories, presenting alongside experts on crop circles, UFOs and government mind control theories.
There are small but real risks involved in vaccinations, as there are with any drug or medical procedure. They are not hidden, and information on them easily available from doctors or online. The risks of harmful side effects are far less dangerous than the risks of catching the disease. Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that can be very serious - and in some cases fatal - and those who refuse vaccines jeopardize not only their own health but also that of others.