The public health official who led the World Health Organization (WHO)'s push to eradicate smallpox says that the current measles epidemic is a harbinger of things to come.
In an interview with the Colorado Springs Independent, Dr. Donald Henderson said that measles is the most wildly contagious vaccine-preventable disease, so it is the first illness to reveal the widening holes in our society's defensive shield of immunity.
It won't be the last, he said.
"Of all the vaccines, measles is the one disease which spreads so well...so this is really an alarm to say we've got a problem," Henderson said. "And I think we also need to start thinking about whooping cough. We may also need to start thinking about diphtheria."
Because fewer children are being vaccinated than any time since the 1960s, he warned, infectious diseases will be able to strike more people and kill more children. Furthermore, children who have been infected with measles are more susceptible to other serious illnesses for more than a year after recovery.
Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory infection that can strike in adults or children. It is characterized by violent fits of coughing that leave the patient fighting for breath.
A child infected with pertussis, said Henderson, "begins coughing, and coughing, and coughing, and often they turn blue in the face. They are gasping for air and then suddenly -- ooooooo -- a very long inhalation, which is the 'whoop.'"
Diphtheria is a vicious infection of the sinuses, nasal cavity and larynx in which the lymph nodes in the neck swell and expand, giving the patient a "bull-necked" appearance. A scabby membrane grows in the back of the throat and covers the tonsils, throat and soft palate. Coupled with the swollen lymph nodes, the membrane can block a child's airway and suffocate them, sometimes to death, hence the disease's 19th century nickname, "the strangling angel of children."
Because these diseases have been largely eradicated until recent years, many parents have gone their whole lives without seeing what these devastating diseases can do to a child, said Henderson.
"One way [to get people to vaccinate] would be to show a child with severe measles, who's permanently handicapped or blind because of having measles," he told the Independent. "We need a visual picture."
Not just children are at risk, he said, when too many families refuse to vaccinate their children. Some vaccines weaken and wear off over time. The loss of so-called "herd immunity" means that adults are at risk for diseases that were believed to have been eliminated.
"The feeling is, you are part of a social community," he says, "and it's not just your child that's going to be affected."
Henderson was appointed by WHO in the mid-1960s to spearhead the effort to wipe out smallpox. By 1972, the disease had become so rare that the U.S. stopped vaccinating against it. By 1980, said the Independent, the disease was declared eradicated.
Henderson went on to help eliminate polio in most of the Western hemisphere and measles. He is currently a resident scholar at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.