Since 1963, when the measles vaccine was first introduced, our country has experienced a downward trend of measles outbreaks. By the turn of this century, the measles virus was close to eradication with very few cases reported each year. However in recent years, there has been a resurgence of the measles virus, something that can be largely attributed to an increasing number of parents choosing to not vaccinate their children. Many of these parents are refusing to vaccinate because of the believed association that vaccinations can cause autism. This trend has been endorsed by various celebrities, despite the fact that no link has ever confirmed a connection, and results of a research study finding an association have since been disproved.
But despite proven effectiveness and economic savings, public health communications regarding vaccines are struggling to resonate with parents, according to a study published recently in Pediatrics. The researchers found that vaccines prevented 42,000 early deaths and 20 million cases of disease in 2009. However, in a second study in the journal, researchers tested the effectiveness of messages designed to reduce misconceptions about vaccines rates and found that none of the four interventions resulted in increased intent to vaccinate.
In particular, the study found that images of sick children or “dramatic stories” about disease that can be prevented by vaccination only serve to make parents more likely to believe vaccines have adverse side effects. The researchers concluded that more pro-vaccine message testing is needed. But in the meantime, the measles resurgence is real.
The number of cases of measles in recent years has caused alarm for some medical professionals. After a record outbreak in 2011, 2012 saw a large drop in the number of cases with 54. However, in 2013, there were at least 189 confirmed cases, and there have already been 106 confirmed cases in the United States so far this year.
The best way to protect against measles is to receive the vaccine. Anyone who is not immune is vulnerable, including those who are unable to obtain a vaccine. This includes children who are too young to receive the vaccine and those can’t get the vaccine for medical reasons and rely on the rest of us for protection. Parents are encouraged to have their children vaccinated. Adults who are unsure of their vaccination history can choose to be revaccinated or can obtain a blood test to find out whether they are vaccinated.
The measles virus is highly contagious and spreads through the air by respiratory droplets, the mist that is exhaled when a person coughs or sneezes. This mist can infect a person for up to two hours after the infected person has left a room. The first symptom of the measles virus is a fever, followed by a cough, runny nose, red and watery eyes, and a rash. An infected person is contagious four days before the rash appears and up to four days after the rash begins, meaning that a person can spread the virus before realizing they are sick.
The vaccine for measles, MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella), is recommended for children once they reach the age of 12 months. Not all people become immune after the initial dose of the vaccine, so a booster dose is recommended. An unvaccinated individual has a 90 percent chance of becoming infected when exposed to the virus, while the vaccine reduces that risk by 95 percent.
Meanwhile, health professionals are encouraged to further educate their patients about the importance of the vaccine and to reach out to families with children who have not yet been vaccinated. If you live in an area affected by the outbreak, health departments are encouraging people to call their doctors to discuss their symptoms prior to coming in to a busy clinic, urgent care, or emergency department to avoid exposing others to the virus.
Clearly we have more work to do to effectively create messages to parents regarding vaccinations. What used to be commonplace for most parents is becoming something that more and more parents question. How can we craft messages that resonate with parents and drive them to appropriately vaccinate their children?