There is a serious measles outbreak in New York City. As of Tuesday, 20 confirmed cases (11 adults and 9 children) have been identified, according to the New York Times, and city officials are warning unvaccinated New Yorkers to get shots or, in some cases, to get revaccinated.
Measles is a highly infectious viral disease that causes a blotchy rash, fever, and tiny white spots inside the mouth and can lead to further complications such as pneumonia, conjunctivitis, ear infections, and even death, says the Centers for Disease Control. it spreads person-to-person, usually by airborne droplets from a sneeze or cough or from direct contact from touching contaminated surfaces. It can be prevented with a measles vaccine hence doctors recommend that children receive shots between the ages of 12 and 15 months and again between 4 and 6 years.
If measles sounds like an old-fashioned disease, that’s because it was. Measles was virtually eliminated in the United States from 2000 to 2011, and the last U.S. outbreak was in 1967. In the UK, the numbers are similar, with cases in the single digits up until. 2006.
Since that time the number of cases has grown dramatically, with the UK showing over 2000 cases for 2012, and now we are seeing similar trends in the US.
The basis for any immunization campaign is what is called herd immunity. Not everyone has to be vaccinated, but a significant proportion of the population does. For herd immunity to kick in you have to hit a certain threshold, and that threshold is based upon how infectious the disease is. In the case of Measles – it is a very infectious disease, so the threshold is between 83 and 94 percent. With a less infectious disease it would be lower.
Now here comes the celebrity connection. In 1997 the medical journal the Lancet published a small study of one dozen children with behavioral and intestinal problems. Eight had been vaccinated with the MMR vaccine, a shot that prevents measles, mumps, and rubella. As a result of the report, many parents stopped vaccinating their children. One of these parents was Jenny McCarthy, whose 10-year-old son was vaccinated and was also diagnosed with autism in 2005. McCarthy has been an outspoken critic of vaccination since and other celebs have also taken a similar position.
The problem: The study was majorly flawed. The British Medical Journal found that British study author Dr. Andrew Wakefield had misrepresented or altered the medical histories of the children and basically the study was a fake. Not only that, the Wakefield study had been funded by a law firm that was suing vaccine manufacturers (a fact that Wakefield never disclosed). Wakefields medical license was subequently revoked and other researchers have been unable to reproduce similar results.
The result has been that the percentage of the population that is getting immunized has dropped and in the case of measles, it has dropped below the threshold.
Now is Jenny McCarthy responsible for this? No – you cannot establish a causal link between the two, but it is certainly an influencing factor.