Measles is having a big year: According to the Washington Post, the Centers for Disease Control has confirmed 695 reported cases of measles in 22 states across the U.S. so far in 2019. That’s the largest number on record since the disease was declared eliminated in the U.S. at the turn of the century.
2000 was the year that health authorities declared measles effectively eliminated across the U.S.—meaning not only that there was virtually zero risk of catching the disease, but that any new cases were likely to only originate outside the country.
The previous record since 2000 was 2014, the Post wrote, when 667 cases were reported nationwide. The observant will note that 2014 was an entire year, while the 695 cases so far in 2019 have taken place over less than four months.
Many of the outbreaks this year are believed to have spread from as far away as Israel, Ukraine, and the Philippines, with the CDC noting two particularly large outbreaks in New York and another in Michigan have upped the numbers, per the New York Times. One major reason health officials say they have found a foothold in the U.S. is the anti-vax movement.
Anti-vaxxers reject the assessment of virtually the entire scientific and medical community that vaccines are safe and effective, instead promoting baseless theories that vaccines can cause conditions ranging from autism to made-up ones like “vaccine overload” (and sometimes that physicians are part of a cover-up to protect pharmaceutical profits). As the Washington Post argued, the movement is also fueled by resentment of state power and compulsory vaccination mandates, and a report in the Daily Beast earlier this year warned that in recent years they have become increasingly well-organized politically and vocal online.
Some organized efforts seem to have raised considerable funding, such as Robert F. Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense or Jenny McCarthy’s Generation Rescue. Before the outbreak in New York City, anti-vax organizations targeted Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods with magazines and pamphlets full of anti-vaccine propaganda.
It’s not clear how many dedicated anti-vaxxers there are. However, non-medical vaccine exemption rates are growing at a troubling rate in the states that allow them. Anti-vaxxers have been a consistently reported factor in the outbreaks at a time when some studies have found vaccination rates are getting lower for a number of reasons, including complacency or an inability to afford regular medical care. Fewer individuals receiving their shots, whether it’s unvaccinated adults or parents refusing to innoculate their children, threatens herd immunity, a term for when enough people are immune to a disease that outbreaks cannot easily spread.
In a statement to the Post, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that the U.S. is experiencing “a resurgence of measles, a disease that had once been effectively eliminated from our country. ... Measles is not a harmless childhood illness, but a highly contagious, potentially life-threatening disease.”
Azar added that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was “among the most extensively studied medical products we have,” and its safety has been “firmly established over many years in some of the largest vaccine studies ever undertaken.”
“The World Health Organization reported this month that there has been a 300% increase in the number of measles cases worldwide compared with the first 3 months of 2018,” the CDC wrote in a separate statement. “That increase is part of a global trend seen over the past few years as other countries struggle with declining vaccination rates and may be exacerbating the situation here.”
“A significant factor contributing to the outbreaks in New York is misinformation in the communities about the safety of the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine,” the CDC added. “Some organizations are deliberately targeting these communities with inaccurate and misleading information about vaccines.”