Measles outbreak: Number of US cases reach record high after swathe of anti-vaccination misinformation

Twenty-two states report cases of the extremely contagious disease

Andrew Buncombe
Monday 29 April 2019 12:22
The World Health Organization warns of global rise in measles cases

The number of measles cases in the US has reached 704 – a 25-year high – caused by a combination of cultural traditions and anti-vaccine disinformation.

Some 22 states have recorded cases of the extremely contagious disease that can sometimes be deadly for children, according to new information released by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), the country’s leading nationwide public health institute.

The figures represented an increase of 1.3 per cent since the most recent count, details of which were released last week.

“This is the greatest number of cases reported in the US since 1994 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000,” said the CDC.

The agency said the states where cases had been reported to the CDC were Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, and Washington.

The data shows the largest and most sustained outbreaks had been detected in New York’s Rockland County, 40 miles north of New York city, and the borough of Brooklyn. These have been centred among ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, some members of which have traditionally been “vaccine adverse”.

Other major outbreaks were recorded in the southeast of Washington state, where anti-vaccine campaigners, some of them powerful voices on the national stage, have tried to push back moves by officials to ensure children – with an exemption for medical situations such as those who have undergone transplants – are vaccinated if they wish to attend school.

“These outbreaks are linked to travellers who brought measles back from other countries such as Israel, Ukraine, and the Philippines, where large measles outbreaks are occurring. Make sure you are vaccinated against measles before travelling internationally,” the CDC said of the cases in New York and elsewhere.

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio declared a state of emergency and threatened residents with $1,000 fines if they refused to vaccinate.

The measles-struck town battling anti-vaccine propaganda

In Washington state, where the outbreak was centred around Clark County, governor Jay Inslee also declared a state of emergency earlier this year, and urged parents to vaccinate their children.

“Measles is a highly contagious infectious disease that can be fatal in small children,” he said.

Earlier this month, legislators in Washington state’s upper chamber passed a measure that would remove the right of parents to object to measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccinations on personal of philosophical grounds. Religious and medical exemptions will still be allowed for all vaccinations, under the measure, which is expected to be passed by the lower chamber and signed into law by Mr Inslee.

One of most high-profile anti-vaccine campaigners to have visited the Pacific Northwest is Robert F Kennedy Jr, an environmentalist and nephew of the assassinated president John F Kennedy. He has claimed, contrary to the overwhelming weight of medical evidence and research, that vaccines can cause autism in children.

At a public hearing earlier this year, he said to parents: “Do we want to be a country that forces its children or parents to engage in risky medical interventions without informed consent?”

Anti-vaccine campaigners have taken heart from Donald Trump, who during a 2015 presidential primary debate, said he believed vaccines could be dangerous.

Prior to the election, Mr Trump met with four prominent anti-vaccine campaigners at a fundraiser in Florida – disbarred and disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield, Mark Blaxill, editor-at-large of the Age of Autism website, Gary Kompothecras, a chiropractor and Trump donor from Sarasota, and Jennifer Larson, an entrepreneur who has campaigned against vaccines in Minnesota.

Mr Wakefield, who in 1998 notoriously suggested he had found a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, a claim subsequently found to be false, has remade himself in the US as a sought-after-speaker by those opposed to vaccines.

In 2017, he was linked to an outbreak of measles among the Somali-American population of Minneapolis, which he had addressed.

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