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Measles vaccine intersects parental choice and community health

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In 2014, 383 cases of measles were reported across nine counties in Ohio. In 2015, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared a measles outbreak in the U.S. And while there hasn’t been a similar declaration in 2016, the CDC and health professionals are encouraging parents to vaccinate their kids. 

The issue of vaccinations is serious, partly because of the severe risk accidental exposure to measles poses to children less than a year old (they aren’t old enough to receive routine vaccination), the elderly and people who have immune deficiencies that prevent them from being able to receive a vaccine.

In an October 2016 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), researchers concluded “the single best means of containment of measles … is maintenance of high initial levels of measles immunity in the population.”

What is measles?

Measles is the most deadly of all childhood rash/fever illnesses, according to the CDC. The disease spreads very easily, so it is important to protect against infection. To prevent measles, children (and some adults) should be vaccinated with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The CDC notes that two doses of this vaccine are needed for complete protection. Children should be given the first dose of MMR vaccine at 12 to 15 months of age. The second dose can be given 4 weeks later, but is usually given before the start of kindergarten at 4 to 6 years of age.

“Underimmunization” and the Ohio outbreak

The 2014 measles outbreak in Ohio happened in “underimmunized” Amish communities, according to the NEJM study. After a trip to the Philippines, two individuals returned to their homes in the U.S. and the disease spread throughout the communities.

“The single best means of containment of measles … is maintenance of high initial levels of measles immunity in the population.”

Researchers of the study noted acceptance of vaccinations has slightly increased since the outbreak in Ohio after local health departments helped promote and offer vaccines.

Herd immunity

Routine vaccines recommended by the CDC are important for people of all ages and are based on science “that prioritizes safety, as well as effectiveness,” according to John Moore, DO, FAAFP, Aetna’s medical director for the U.S. Northeast Region.

“When vaccines are provided in the manner recommended, they provide the most powerful method of preventing death and disability from infectious diseases that we’ve witnessed in modern medicine,” Moore said. 

For some people, such as children less than 6 months old and some older adults, it might not be possible to get vaccinated. These people will depend on those around them for protection. Known as “herd immunity,” a person’s chances of getting a disease or virus is reduced if those around them are vaccinated, Moore said.

Due to the development and effectiveness of different vaccines, some diseases, such as smallpox, have been eradicated. While vaccines help with treating and preventing the spread of diseases, a vaccination still offers protection, Moore said.

“We no longer see polio, measles or even chickenpox like we used to,” he said. “The absence of these diseases in our communities does not mean we no longer need the vaccines to protect our communities.”

With measles, Moore added, it can travel into the U.S. from other countries where epidemics are still problematic, such as the 2014 outbreak in Ohio. 

“A serious infectious disease epidemic like measles is just a plane ride away from causing a serious problem in a community with less than ideal vaccination compliance.”

Read more about the dangers of not vaccinating.