Measles sweeps back as fake science spreads
One of the world’s most infectious diseases is showing signs of rampant growth, says new research out today. This is partly due to the willingness of millions to believe in medical myths.
Fact. It is one of the most infectious diseases in the world. The virus can linger for up to two hours in the air of an enclosed space where an infected person has been. If you carry the virus, 90 percent of those near you who have not been vaccinated will also become infected.
Andrew Wilson’s daughter was 19 when she caught measles last year, during her second term at university.
“We got a phone call about 10 o’clock at night from her housemate saying they’d just called an ambulance because her heart rate was through the roof. She’d come out in a rash and her temperature was over 40 degrees,” says Wilson, 48, who lives in the Isle of Wight.
“She was in hospital for a week, being sick constantly and unable to eat. She lost a stone in weight, only being slight to begin with.”
“I was shocked. I had no idea measles was so serious.”
Today Wilson is haunted by his decision not to vaccinate her as a baby.
“Around the time she was born, there were all these scare stories about autism,” he recalls.
“As a parent, a little bit of information can be dangerous. I was concerned about having a child with a new immune system being bombarded with all these vaccines.”
He is not alone. More than half a million children in the UK were not given a crucial measles jab between 2010 and 2017, an analysis by children's charity Unicef reveals today.
It comes as NHS chief Simon Stevens warns measles cases have almost quadrupled in England in just one year.
In America, this morning it is reported that the number of measles cases has risen to 695, the highest annual number recorded since the disease was declared “eliminated” in 2000. The virus has been detected in 22 states.
Globally, the report shows 169 million children were not given a first dose of measles vaccine between 2010 and 2017.
“It’s a bit like being in a forest of dried trees waiting for someone to strike a match,” says Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol.
Before 1963, when there was no measles vaccine, the world experienced a major measles outbreak every few years, causing 2.6 million deaths annually.
Since the turn of the century, the measles vaccine has saved over 21 million lives, decreasing the death toll by 80% in just 17 years. But now measles is making a global comeback.
But after years of progress, things have begun to take a turn for the worst, thanks in large part to a lack of funding and a rise in misinformation.
All the following sentences are myths. Measles is harmless. It is better to be immunised by having measles than by having a jab. Homeopathy works better than a vaccine. The vaccine overloads the immune system. The vaccine causes autism. There is no need to be vaccinated because the disease has been eliminated.
Yet many people believe them.
A new dark age?
Just when we thought science and logic had explained nearly everything, is humanity lurching back towards wilful ignorance, suspicion and self-destruction?
Are we, really, creatures of myth, not fact, predisposed to believe a story rather than the truth? And is today’s news just another sign that progress is never linear: just when we think we have fixed a problem, it comes back to bite us?
- Do you prefer facts or stories?
- Are your beliefs about what is good for you based on science or hearsay?
- Make a measles poster that encourages people to get vaccinated.
- Divide the class in two. In one team, everyone researches and writes down a scientific fact that is amazing but true. In the other half, everyone invents and writes down their own scientific myth (trying to make it sound true). Mix them up and read them out to the whole class, guessing which is which.
Some People Say...
“Watching measles make a global comeback is like watching a character in a horror film make dumb decisions in slow motion.”The World Health Organisation
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The measles vaccine is among the most effective vaccines in the world with 97% success rate among those who have received the two recommended doses. Many studies have found no link between vaccines and autism, but one of the most conclusive studies was conducted in Denmark specifically on the MMR vaccine. The records of hundreds of thousands of children were followed, and researchers found no increase in risk of autism among vaccinated children.
- What do we not know?
- The measles vaccine isn’t 100% free of serious side effects — even aspirin can have side effects — but they are extremely rare. For example, the chance of developing encephalitis after a dose of the vaccine against measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox is one in three million, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, compared with one in 1,000 for people who have measles. Also, it isn’t clear whether those encephalitis cases were really caused by the vaccine, even though they occurred after it.
- Immune system
- The immune system is the body’s defence against infectious organisms and other invaders. Through a series of steps called the immune response, the immune system attacks organisms and substances that invade body systems and cause disease.
- The United Nations Children’s Fund is considered to be the world’s leading charity for children in danger everywhere. It was founded in 1946 to help with the devastation caused by World War Two.
- The area of medicine that manages medical conditions affecting infants, children and young people.