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Fábregas: Measles outbreak shows anti-vaccine crusade foolhardy, dangerous

Luis Fábregas

When I was growing up in the early ’70s, there was no vaccine for chickenpox. Many of my schoolmates got sick with the virus, which covers the skin with hundreds of itchy blisters.

I picked up a nasty case of chickenpox when I was around seven. I missed school for more than a week to nurse the painful blisters that appeared all over my body, even on my head.

My mom would have loved a chickenpox vaccine, she told me, much in the way today’s parents have vaccines to stop completely preventable diseases. Why put your child at risk of harmful complications when there’s a solution widely supported by science?

Today’s headlines are dominated not by chickenpox but by measles, a similar, highly contagious disease eliminated from the United States in 2000. Measles is staging a mind-boggling comeback. More than 100 people in 14 states were reported to have measles in January. Many of the cases have been linked to an outbreak that started at the Disneyland amusement park in California.

There is no mystery to this outbreak. It happened because some parents choose not to vaccinate their children. It happened because some parents think they’re above science. It happened because some parents think they can opt out of vaccines in the same way they can opt out of letting their children watch TV.

“It’s definitely frustrating when you see the incontrovertible evidence of what vaccines have done for the human race,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the UPMC Center for Health Security, told me this week.

The best example is polio, the virus that terrified parents in the 1950s. It left thousands of children paralyzed or dependent on big machines called iron lungs. The vaccine for it, formulated by the University of Pittsburgh’s Jonas Salk, enabled the eradication of this life-threatening illness. Cases have dropped to fewer than 1,000 worldwide, compared to hundreds of thousands just six decades ago.

Here’s one theory on why some parents seem so aloof about vaccination, according to Adalja: They have never witnessed the ravages caused by diseases that are thriving in other parts of the world. When they stroll into Starbucks to order a soy latte, they’re oblivious of the millions of children dying of tuberculosis, influenza and, yes, measles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 400 children worldwide die of measles and its complications every day.

“We’ve become a victim of our own success. I wouldn’t think Jenny McCarthy would have an audience in parts of Africa where children are dying,” Adalja said of the TV host and anti-vaccine activist.

Just a few months ago, we clamored for an Ebola vaccine when the virus entered the United States for the first time. The disease has killed nearly 9,000 people in West Africa. Can you imagine the people of West Africa, if there were an Ebola vaccine, rejecting the shot and instead saying, “We want to die?”

There is a perfectly effective vaccine against measles that more than 2 billion have received around the world. Count me among those who think that it’s irresponsible to call it toxic or link it to autism.

This week, health authorities in Cook County, Ill., announced a cluster of babies at a day care center could have measles. The babies are younger than 1, which means they are too young to get the measles vaccine. Those babies are exactly the ones who suffer the most when other parents fail to vaccinate their kids. We have a responsibility to increase vaccination rates. Have you done your part?

Luis Fábregas is Trib Total Media’s medical editor. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or [email protected].


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