It’s the worst kind of comeback. Measles, a preventable deadly disease that was eradicated in the United States 20 years ago, is on the rise again, thanks to growing mistrust of vaccines. Massachusetts would be wise now to hear the warning shots around the world and take a simple critical step to stave off an outbreak.
This year, the United States has seen 1,261 measles cases nationwide as of November — a 25-year record high. Globally, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Brazil to Ukraine, measles outbreaks are increasing. According to the World Health Organization, the number of worldwide measles cases increased by nearly 300 percent in the first three months of 2019 compared with the same period last year. The Pacific island of Samoa is the latest to contend with an outbreak: More than 3,700 measles cases have been reported; more than 50 people have died in the current outbreak, most of them children under 4 years of age. The cause? A steep decline in Samoa’s immunization rate due to fear of vaccines.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts has been lucky. But that’s no cause for the complacency that was apparent on Beacon Hill on Tuesday. In a joint committee hearing on two bills that would strengthen vaccine rules for school-age children, state Representative Michael Soter questioned the urgency. “Why now?" he asked state Senator Rebecca Rausch, who filed one of the bills. The hearing room, filled mostly with anti-vaccine activists, burst into applause.
But lawmakers shouldn’t wait for a local outbreak to act.
Yes, the Commonwealth today enjoys one of the highest statewide rates of immunizations in the country. But the state also allows parents to withhold vaccinations for their kids based on religious beliefs. These religious exemptions have been rising over the past couple of decades, leaving some pockets in the state vulnerable to contagion. And a study released earlier this month reveals that parents may be exploiting religious exemptions to avoid getting their kids vaccinated.
“I think we’re really only seeing the beginning of this,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health and a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who has researched measles and vaccine hesitancy. “And if there is a loophole [to not vaccinate,] people will take it.”
Massachusetts now has a chance to clamp down on the disease through common-sense legislation that would close loopholes that currently allow parents to reject vaccinations for their children. State lawmakers shouldn’t get distracted by the small but vocal anti-vaccination movement that is opposing the bills filed earlier this year to tighten up the rules.
Five states have already banned religious exemptions to vaccination, allowing parents to claim only medical reasons for not vaccinating their children: Mississippi, West Virginia, California, New York, and Maine. In those cases, groups of vaccine-hesitant parents organized against the measures, offering a completely lopsided amount of advocacy. While the vast majority of the public supports vaccination, activists in the anti-vaccine movement — in reality, a tiny enclave of the population — are highly motivated.
“For every pro-vax testimony we have received, there have been 15 anti-vax e-mails,” said state Representative Andy X. Vargas, who filed the other bill to strengthen the rules.
Meanwhile, the vast body of evidence that vaccination is safe and critical for children’s health is only growing. A recently published groundbreaking study shows that measles is far more dangerous and scary than most parents realize.
“After kids get measles, they may recover just fine,” said Mina. “But over the next five or six years in their lives, we find that those kids are actually at a higher risk of getting highly infectious diseases because they’re set back in their immune system.” It’s a phenomenon called “immune amnesia,” where the measles virus can wipe out a person’s immunological system. Mina said parents need to realize that the virus is not benign and can pose lasting danger.
The science is overwhelmingly clear: Vaccines are safe and lifesaving. And it is more important than ever to prevent the irrational fears of a few from undermining such straightforward facts. The Legislature should protect the broader population from a vocal minority that would put our collective health at risk.