Eight children in Philadelphia were infected in a measles outbreak as experts warned that U.S. vaccination rates risked dropping below a vital “tipping point.” Measles is highly contagious, though the disease naturally dies away when 95% of people in a society are vaccinated. The U.S. declared it eliminated in 2000 after a successful vaccination campaign.
But as vaccination hesitancy rose during the COVID-19 pandemic, the rate of Americans unvaccinated against measles did too. Now more than 5% of children are unvaccinated across 10 U.S. states, putting their communities at risk of contracting the disease which can cause severe disability and even death.
About 1 in 5 unvaccinated people who get measles are hospitalized, and 1 to 3 of every 1,000 children with measles die from severe complications. But people who receive both doses of the vaccine are considered protected for life: one dose is 93% effective at prevention and two doses are 97% effective.
Vaccine hesitancy is responsible for outbreaks around the world
Vaccine hesitancy “has been responsible for several measles outbreaks” in the U.S., two experts wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And vaccination rates against other diseases are much lower: only about 19% of U.S. adults have received the latest COVID vaccine.
The uptick in measles cases stretches beyond the U.S. Following a yearslong decline in vaccinations, global cases increased 18% from 2021 to 2022 and deaths increased by 43%. The risk of death from measles is the highest in low-income countries, according to the World Health Organization, which have the lowest vaccination rates at only 66% — a sign that the rate has’t recovered from the backsliding during the pandemic. This is “an alarm bell for action,” one WHO official warned. Measles is known as “the inequity virus for good reason,” she said, because it “will find and attack those who aren’t protected.”
Social media mis- and disinformation is driving vaccine hesitancy
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Institutes of Health found a significant relationship between anti-vaccine organizing on social media and public doubts of vaccine safety. There’s also a strong connection between “foreign disinformation campaigns and declining vaccination coverage,” it reported.
Misinformation about vaccine safety, opposition to vaccination requirements, and fears about taking children to the doctor during the COVID pandemic are driving the fall in vaccination rates, an expert told NBC News. People also misunderstand how contagious measles is, he said.
Measles cases show health systems haven’t recovered from the pandemic
Outbreaks of measles across the globe could be a “canary in the coal mine,” signaling how far health systems still have to go to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, a CDC measles expert told CBS News. “We also have to realize that these health systems are likely not delivering other essential health services,” Cynthia Hatcher said.
But while health systems haven’t fully bounced back, Health Policy Watch reported that they have made significant progress since 2021. The pandemic also “highlighted the need to invest in recovery and stronger resilience for the future,” WHO said.