The measles threat continues to grow, thanks to the anti-vaccination movement.
In the most worrisome report yet in a lengthening sequence, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that it had documented 288 cases in the United States this year through May 23. That's the highest number for the first five months of a year since 1994. Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, but the disease remains endemic elsewhere in the world, from where it can be imported to the United States by the unvaccinated.
The CDC left no doubt that lack of vaccination is the culprit: 200 of the 288 cases, or 69%, occurred in unvaccinated people. The vaccination status of another 20% couldn't be determined.
"Among the 195 U.S. residents who had measles and were unvaccinated," the CDC reported, "165 (85%) declined vaccination because of religious, philosophical or personal objections."
To put it bluntly, these are people who have deliberately turned themselves into a public health risk. (The others were unvaccinated because they had missed an appointment or were too young -- that is, less than a year old.)
It's important to be aware that measles is not merely an inconvenient outbreak of skin rash. The disease is no joking matter, for as the CDC warns, it can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis and death. Children and infants are especially at risk.
The anti-vaccination movement is a corner of the United States that is backsliding into medieval ignorance. Unfortunately, it's an expanding corner, with alarming outbreaks in affluent and ostensibly educated communities. Entertainment figures such as the starlet Jenny McCarthy and the talk show host Katie Couric have played their role in spreading the darkness, as we reported here and here.
But consider the phenomenon of Marin County, where prominent pediatricians spread vaccine doubt among their patients -- or more properly, their patients' parents -- like a virus. As Mother Jones recently reported, these doctors display a caring, reassuring veneer to their clients while purveying a dangerous variety of unscientific nonsense.
For example, they advise parents to put off the MMR vaccine (against measles, mumps and rubella) until age 3, two years later than the CDC recommends, on the complacent reasoning that these diseases aren't much of a threat in the Bay Area.
By doing so, however, they're turning them into a threat. The CDC observes that the three largest outbreaks of 2014, accounting for more than half the cases, "occurred after introduction of measles into communities with pockets of persons who were unvaccinated because of philosophical or religious beliefs." California, with 60 cases so far this year, compared to six for the same period a year ago, is one of the CDC's identified trouble spots.
The state Department of Public Health reports that the percentage of children entering kindergarten without their full immunizations has been rising at least since 2008; the number of those with "personal belief" exemptions has been soaring. Both trends are especially marked in private schools, which suggests that affluence or religious beliefs play a role in this perilous trend.
The California Medical Board is responsible for monitoring unprofessional practices; why isn't it asking tough questions about the licenses of doctors whose advice imperils their young patients and the community at large?
It doesn't take much to turn an "eliminated" disease back into an endemic health threat. Only about a decade of anti-vaccination publicity associated with the egregious fraud Dr. Andrew Wakefield did the job in Great Britain, where measles was redeclared endemic in 2008. The United States is well on its way to joining Britain as a public health disgrace.