Will Olympics spread measles?

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A worrying number of European measles cases — and parents not vaccinating kids — has some doctors extra-concerned.

In our post 9/11 world, events like the Olympics carry the extra burden of keeping spectators safe from acts of violence. Visitors to London will no doubt see police toting submachine guns and be captured by surveillance cameras at every turn. While anti-terrorism has dominated conversations on the eve of the games, there’s a less-discussed hazard for travelers — and the rest of us. In 2011, Europe reported over 30,000 cases of measles. Third-world levels of infection on a first-world continent are worrisome. It’s worth considering whether folks stepping foot in Great Britain should carry a copy of their vaccine records with their passport to earn safe passage into the country.

We don’t know how many measles cases were due to parents who refused to vaccinate their kids. We do know that the cases can be attributed to broad swaths of people who are not vaccinated against measles. We also know that the bogus claim that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) causes autism got its start in Europe. Most important, we know that the world is flat: 2011 also saw the largest outbreak of measles in the U.S. since the mid-1990s. Over 90 percent of our cases were imported here from locations around the world. Some of those cases were, unfortunately, kids who were too young to receive either one or both doses of the MMR vaccine. But of those infected kids who could get the vaccine, three out of four did not because their parents refused it.

All of this makes us ask, yet again: Despite the breadth of medical, legal and ethical evidence speaking to the safety of vaccines, why does the anti-vaccine movement continue to wield so much influence over parents?

But before getting to that, it’s worth putting the problem in perspective. Anti-vaccinationists have been around since the birth of immunizations. What’s striking is how little has changed in their attempts to damage the reputation of vaccines. Paul Offit shows this in his book “Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All.” After the discovery of the smallpox vaccine during the 1880s, anti-vaccinationists seized upon the fears of a less secular society by claiming the vaccine contained the “poison of adders, the blood, entrails and excretions of bats, toads and suckling whelps.” Today, in a society more accustomed to clinical jargon, they focus fear tactics on the real compounds used to keep us safe and known to be effective, like thimerosal.


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