This Scary Disease Just Made A Comeback For the First Time in Years

June 28th 2017

Mike Rothschild

Health officials in Maine recently confirmed the state's first case of a disease that it hasn't seen in years. 

A person was diagnosed with measles, the state's first case since 1997, according to multiple news reports.

In announcing the case to the public, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that the person diagnosed with the highly-contagious disease had traveled to Maine from overseas, though no information was given on the identity of the person, or if they'd been vaccinated. 

Because of a safe and extremely effective vaccine, measles was thought to be virtually eliminated in the developed world, with the last indigenous case being diagnosed in the United States in 2002. But the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, fueled by the debunked and discredited notion that vaccines cause autism and injuries in children, has led to measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases making a comeback over the last decade.

Unfounded fears over immunization has led to worldwide measles vaccination rates stagnating at about 78 percent, according to data from an NPR story about the current uptick. This is too low a number for herd immunity, the protection of the unvaccinated by the vaccinated, to work effectively; and a number of countries are struggling with major outbreaks, including major tourism destinations like France and Italy. 

When people from those countries travel to the United States and come into contact with unvaccinated people, and since measles is one of the most contagious diseases known to humanity, they easily spread it in the air. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable. 

Since 2008, U.S. health officials have tracked large measles outbreaks in areas with low vaccination rates. Some of these include almost 400 cases in Ohio in 2014, a multi-state outbreak in 2015 that began at Disneyland and was likely caused by one traveler from the Philippines, and a currently-raging outbreak among Somali immigrants in Minneapolis.  

A common trope of anti-vaccine websites is that measles is a mild disease that carries no risk of death in developed countries, and is actually less dangerous than the MMR vaccine that protects against measles. However, this is completely untrue, and based on the same discredited pseudoscience that spawned the initial claims that vaccines cause autism.

Measles is actually extremely dangerous, and can cause health problems up to a decade after infection. While most cases are minor, involving only fever, rash, fatigue, and a cough; complications of the disease are common. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every four measles cases in the U.S. leads to hospitalization, with severe brain infection taking place in one out of every thousand cases.

And deaths from measles do occur, contrary to anti-vaccine claims. Measles deaths are difficult to confirm, since they usually occur in cases so severe the patient has contracted other diseases. But in 2015, the CDC confirmed the first American measles death since at least 2008, with a woman in Washington dying of pneumonia caused by measles.

That woman, living in a state with a high number of vaccine refusals, was taking powerful drugs that suppressed her immune system, and likely "caught the disease while at a local medical facility when another person came in with measles," according to Forbes.

The CDC recommends that for optimal protection from measles, children get their first MMR dose at 12 through 15 months of age, a second dose at 4 through 6 years of age, and that both teens and adults stay up to date on MMR vaccinations.