How the anti-vaccine movement minimizes the danger of measles

As measles outbreaks spread around the world, anti-vaccine activists are not only urging people not to get vaccinated, they are also downplaying the dangers of the highly contagious respiratory disease.

“The truth is, measles is not a very serious illness when you’re a child,” Mary Holland, president of the nation’s best-funded anti-vaccine organization, Children’s Health Defense, said last week on the group’s online morning show. Children’s Health Defense was founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who retired from the organization in April to run for president.

Holland, who is a lawyer, called the government’s responses to recent outbreaks “scaremongering.”

“It’s a couple of days of announcements and then the page is turned,” he said.

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But national health agencies warn that fear of measles is well founded.

Measles—a disease so contagious that it acts as an indicator of threats from other infectious diseases—is characterized by fever, flu-like symptoms, and an itchy skin rash, and sometimes leads to serious complications such as pneumonia, seizures, and brain damage. . For every 1,000 cases of measles, about 200 children may be hospitalized, 50 may contract pneumonia, one child may develop brain inflammation along with deafness or disability, and one to three may die.

Despite the availability of an incredibly effective vaccine, the disease is spreading around the world. The reasons for this increase are complex. For countries in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, there are access problems; Childhood vaccination campaigns suffered when COVID-19 weakened public health systems. Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States suffered similar, albeit smaller-scale, disruptions to their childhood vaccination programs during the pandemic. Growing vaccine skepticism plays a minor but significant role.

Last month, the World Health Organization announced an “alarming” 45-fold increase in recorded measles cases in Europe from 2022 to 2023, while UK health authorities declared a “national incident” stemming from an outbreak. of hundreds of cases in the West Midlands, warning of a likely spread to other regions. British authorities attribute the increase to a decline in vaccination.

Across the United States, state and regional health agencies have announced cases of measles in their communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an advisory last week for providers to “remain alert” for measles cases, citing 23 confirmed cases since Dec. 1, most among unvaccinated children.

Anti-vaccine activists and influencers are unfazed.

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Mothers and wellness influencers with tens of thousands of followers on Instagram have reacted to the recent outbreaks with posts warning their audiences not to be alarmed. “As the news tries to scaremonger the measles ‘outbreak,'” one home birth advocate posted, “remember that the vaccine is more dangerous than the actual disease.” (That is false).

Other mom influencers posted memes that appealed to nostalgia for a time when some parents intentionally exposed their young children to measles, mumps and rubella with “parties,” since these diseases were considered serious, but less harmful to the children. Small children. These planned contaminations largely ended the availability of vaccines, which offered the opportunity to avoid diseases in childhood and in older people.

Before a measles vaccine became available in 1963, there were estimated to be millions of cases a year in the United States, tens of thousands of related hospitalizations and hundreds of deaths, according to the CDC. At the time, compared to polio and smallpox, measles was considered a milder disease, but building on the success of those immunization efforts, the federal government launched a vaccination campaign to eradicate measles, and in 1969, cases had decreased drastically.

Although distrust of vaccines has long existed, certain events—most notably the publication of disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield’s since-discredited research—fueled the anti-vaccine movement and have fueled the enduring false belief that Vaccines cause autism and other diseases.

The tactic of downplaying the threat of vaccine-preventable diseases is nothing new. In the 19th century, anti-vaccine activists dismissed the dangers of smallpox as “absurd panic” caused by doctors and health officials. And during COVID-19 — a disease that claimed more than 1 million American lives — activists claimed through debunked documentaries and conspiracy theory-laden books that vaccines were more dangerous than the disease.

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In 2019, as measles spread across the United States at a rate not seen in decades, then-President Donald Trump reversed his previously hesitant stance and urged parents to vaccinate their children.

In response, weeks later, the second-best-funded anti-vaccine organization, Informed Consent Action Network, published “Measles for Dummies,” a video guide on how to “identify, understand and refute mainstream misinformation,” about which Del Bigtree, executive director of the group and now communications director for the Kennedy campaign, called it “a benign childhood illness.”

In December 2019, a measles outbreak in Samoa—where anti-vaccine activists, including Kennedy, had advocated against measles, mumps and rubella vaccines—had killed dozens of children and babies, underscoring the consequences of the casualties. vaccination rates. Last year, Kennedy told NBC News that he did not know the official cause of those deaths and that, despite evidence to the contrary, he believed the vaccine and not measles was responsible.

Kennedy has downplayed measles for years. In 2021, at an Amish country fair in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he praised low vaccination rates and warned the audience that the government was “coming for the Amish.”

“I’m a measles survivor,” Kennedy said sarcastically as the crowd roared with laughter. “It was extraordinary. I’m very, very lucky to have lived through that nightmare because we had to stay home and watch TV all week with all my brothers and sisters. It was horrible.”

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“What is the cure for measles?” he continued. “Chicken soup and vitamin A. None of those things can be patented.”

Kennedy went on to suggest that pharmaceutical companies were ignoring the harms of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine—a claim without evidence—to make injured children “permanent customers.”

Stefanie Spear, press secretary for Kennedy’s campaign, responded by email: “The reason Mr. Kennedy makes light of measles infection is because his generation considered it a routine childhood illness.”

Spear added that deaths from measles were relatively rare before the vaccine was invented. “Virtually all of our grandparents who lived before 1960 contracted measles and survived,” he said. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if our grandparents had died of measles.”

Stories like Kennedy’s remain one of the modern arguments of the anti-vaccine movement, often illustrated by a piece of pop culture passed off as proof: a 50-year-old episode of The Brady Bunch. The clip, in which the Brady children contract and recover from measles with little fanfare or apparent concern from their parents on the series, went so viral in 2019 that a former star of the show spoke out against it. The video is making the rounds in anti-vaccine circles.

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It’s a campaign driven by selective memory, and one with meaningless consequences, said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a frequent target of the anti-vaccine movement.

“Almost everyone who was born before the vaccine existed had measles. I had measles, and so did all my friends. I survived, but not everyone did,” Offit said. “It’s irritating that people think that if they don’t see someone die next to them it never happened.”

Offit mentioned the 1991 measles outbreak in Philadelphia, which began in a church community. By the time health authorities managed to contain it, 1,400 people, mostly unvaccinated preschoolers, had been infected. Nine children died.

Measles means “suffering, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and occasional deaths,” Offit said. “Children with measles are sick. It’s a miserable illness.”

What’s less talked about, Offit said, is an extremely rare disease, subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, or SSPE, a fatal brain disorder that can manifest about seven years after a measles infection.

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“This is a preventable disease,” Offit said. “We could eliminate this virus from the world if we wanted to.”

Elimination would depend on vaccines, which are widely available, safe, effective, and under constant threat from a growing anti-vaccine movement.