A deadly disease is marching its way across the United States and Canada. It’s a disease that infects about 20 million people every year and kills about 200,000. The United States once was a hotbed of infection, seeing almost 900,000 cases of this disease in 1941. But by the 1990s, that number had dropped to fewer than 150 cases annually. Why? Vaccinations.
The disease is measles. It sounds . . . childish, doesn’t it? And people often refer to it as a “childhood disease.” But make no mistake. It’s a virus, one that doesn’t care whom it infects or what tissues it targets, whether brain or lungs. A virus that has a 90% infection rate. A virus that kills children who seem perfectly healthy one day and are dead from lung complications or encephalitis the next. Roald Dahl’s daughter died of measles. Mark Twain almost did. Even though the descriptive “childhood” often accompanies it, there’s nothing remotely childish or casual about this virus. Hospitalization rates are high, and death is not uncommon. In 2005, for example, a total of 311,000 children worldwide died from measles.
And a couple of shots in the arm (or leg) can prevent all of it.
You might think that the outbreak in 2008 would’ve spurred some parents to ensure vaccinations for their children. After all, that year saw more measles cases in the United States than had happened in any year since 1997. Of the people infected, 90% had not been vaccinated or had an unknown vaccination status, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, this year is well on its way to besting that record and then some.
Some notable facts about this year’s outbreak through May 20, 2011:
- From 2001 to 2008, a median of 56 measles cases were reported annually to the CDC.
- During the first 19 weeks of 2011, 118 were reported.
- 89% of this year’s cases have been linked to import from other countries.
- About 89% of those who have contracted measles so far have been unvaccinated.
- 40% of those who have contracted measles in this outbreak have been hospitalized.
- All but one of the hospitalized patients were unvaccinated (the one vaccinated patient was hospitalized for observation only).
- Rates of hospitalization have been 52% for children under 5 years and 33% for children over age 5 and for adults.
- Transmission has occurred in households, childcare centers, shelters, schools, emergency departments, and at a large community event.
- One outbreak alone in Minnesota has encompassed 21 people so far, including seven infants too young to have been vaccinated.
This virus doesn’t care who you are, how old you are, how healthy you are, whether or not you were breastfed or organically fed or loved beyond all measure. It’s a virus. It kills, with pain and distress. And, it bears repeating, a couple of shots in the arm can stop it.
Image courtesy Wellcome Library, London