A spike in international cases of measles and an increase in the number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children has health officials worrying that the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London could produce thousands of new cases of the disease.
According to a Salon.com editorial by Rahul K. Parikh, M.D., the wholesale mingling of hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world could provide a perfect launching pad for a measles epidemic worse than the already historic outbreak currently being faced by Europe and, by extension, the United States.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a warning to travelers to get their measles vaccination or booster shot before heading to London for the Games. While the disease was considered to have been effectively eradicated in the U.S. in 2000, meaning measles no longer occurs year round in this country, the CDC reports that "the disease is still brought into our country by people who get infected abroad. In 2011, 222 people in the United States were reported to have measles. U.S. residents and visitors got measles abroad and brought it to United States and spread it to others. This caused 17 measles outbreaks in various U.S. communities last year."
The 2011 U.S. outbreak was the most severe that the country has seen since the mid-1990s, but in Europe, an astonishing 30,000 cases were reported in 2011. Ninety percent of the U.S. cases in 2011 came from people who caught the disease traveling abroad. Some, according to Parikh, were children too young to get the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR), but of the infected children old enough to be vaccinated, 3 out of 4 cases were in children whose parents refused to have them vaccinated.
Parikh pointed out that the anti-MMR vaccine movement began in Europe, when Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who has since been exposed as a fraud and stripped of his medical license, asserted that the mercury-containing vaccine preservative thimerosal was responsible for recent decades' explosion of autism diagnoses. British TV made Wakefield into something of a rock star, and in spite of the fact that his theory has been debunked, thousands, if not millions of people still believe that vaccines cause autism. Parikh blames a media culture that takes the word of celebrities over scientists, as well as unmonitored, non-peer-reviewed outlets like The Huffington Post, which Parikh singles out for special scorn.
"The Huffington Post is a popular sanctuary for anti-vaccinationists to reach a wide audience," he wrote. "Bloggers there include [actress Jenny] McCarthy, [actor Jim] Carrey, author David Kirby, as well as physicians like Bob Sears. These 'experts' can put their weight behind the anti-vaccine movement without a single edit or scrutiny of their sources. Wakefield, now a pariah among doctors, continues to Tweet directly to anybody who will follow him."
The CDC urges travelers to be alert for symptoms of measles, which begin within 7 to 14 days of infection with fever, cough, runny nose, red eyes, and sore throat, which are common enough symptoms of travel-related colds, but within 3 to 5 days, patients get a brown or reddish rash.
"It usually starts on a person's face at the hairline and spreads downward to the neck, trunk, arms, legs, and feet," reads the CDC website. "If you have these symptoms, you should stay away from others and call your doctor immediately."
Lifelong immunity from measles is estimated to occur in 98 percent of people vaccinated with the MMR vaccine. People at risk for the disease are children and adults who have never been vaccinated and babies too young to receive one or both doses of the vaccine. The CDC says, "Measles can cause serious complications, such as pneumonia or encephalitis, and even death. Some people are at greater risk for complications, including infants, young children, people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant women."
You can download a measles fact sheet from the CDC here. (.pdf)