The Measles Scandal

Hugh Pennington

Graphical representation of a measles virus particle, from the CDC Public Health Image Library

In 2004 I described the basis of attacks on the MMR vaccine as ‘unsubstantiated speculation masquerading as science’, and finished the piece: ‘I despair.’ Measles is now busier in Europe than it was fifteen years ago. The most recent statistics for 2019 show notable increases in case numbers in France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Bulgaria and Ireland. The scientific evidence that the vaccine is safe and that there is absolutely no link between its use and autism is now extremely robust.

Social media give the antivaxxers a powerful, unedited platform. But it would be wrong to hold them responsible; Andrew Wakefield’s paper in the Lancet (long since discredited and withdrawn) had its negative effect on MMR uptake levels years before Facebook was invented. Experts have failed to get the message across that measles can cause irreversible and untreatable brain damage and that the only preventive measure is vaccination. We lost our battles with campaigning journalists and were hindered because TV interviews had to show ‘balance’. We fail still.

There have been no measles marches, or die-ins, or high-profile parliamentary debates. But the emergency is here now, because those opting out of immunisation help the virus to continue circulating, which it does if immunisation levels fall below 93 to 95 per cent. That is the crux of the matter. And it is a scandal that anyone should be infected with an utterly preventable disease.

As a species, measles is ripe for extinction. It has no animal host. There are no human carriers who act as a source. It does not hang about in the environment. The vaccine is cheap and effective. Hitting the 95 per cent mark worldwide would see the disease gone for ever. Achieving it needs no new technology and would save the lives of the tens of thousands of children who are killed by it annually in Africa and Asia. But doing it globally needs the right politics, which are in short supply. The only good news is that Trump is now endorsing MMR. The number of measles cases in the US (which declared indigenous measles eradicated in 2000) is the highest for 25 years with outbreaks in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Maryland, Georgia and in three counties in California.