Author: Noah Horan
You have probably heard about the historically deadly measles outbreak in Samoa, an island nation in the South Pacific. But have you considered the risk of a measles outbreak here in Buffalo?
In 2015, the vaccination rate for measles in Samoa was 84%, but in 2018, that number plummeted to only 31% due to misinformation spread regarding the vaccine’s safety. As a result, over 5100 Samoans have been infected by the measles virus and 72 have died since October, most of them children.
The outbreak in Samoa is not an isolated incident, but part of a global resurgence of measles. In the United States, there were over 1200 cases in 2019, our worst outbreak since 1992. Shockingly, 75% of all cases were linked to outbreaks in New York State. Over the past few years, New York has seen an increase in students receiving exemptions from required vaccinations. Over 26,000 students in NY received non-medical exemptions in 2017-18, which is an increase of 90% since 2011.
As a cancer researcher who also volunteers with patients, I know how important the needs of medically vulnerable individuals are. Life-saving cancer treatments like bone marrow transplants and chemotherapy weaken the patient’s immune system, making them more susceptible to infections.
Measles is among the most contagious of all known viruses.
Measles is among the most contagious of all known viruses. Upon contact with an infected individual, nine out of ten non-immune people will contract the virus. Once a person is infected, there is no effective treatment. Supportive care can only help manage the symptoms, which range from a high fever, cough, and a distinct skin rash, to dangerous complications leading to brain and respiratory damage.
Buffalo General Hospital, Roswell Park Cancer Center, and Oshei Children’s Hospital see a high concentration of Buffalo residents most at-risk for measles infection: cancer patients, people living with HIV, pregnant women, and children under five. For them, contracting measles could mean lifelong health problems or even death.
The most effective way to control the virus is prevention through vaccination. Two doses of the measles vaccine effectively protects against the virus in 97% of people, and the vaccine can also be administered within 72 hours of exposure to prevent infection. Rigorous scientific studies have consistently proven the measles vaccine to be safe.
To prevent measles outbreaks, the World Health Organization recommends that 93-95% of the population is vaccinated.
To prevent measles outbreaks, the World Health Organization recommends that 93-95% of the population is vaccinated. Thanks to an effect called herd immunity, each person vaccinated protects someone else who may not be able to receive the vaccine, with each vaccination blocking another potential point of transmission. More contagious diseases require more people to be vaccinated to prevent an outbreak, so if even a small number of people decide against receiving the measles vaccine, it poses a threat to the health of the entire community. We have seen this in both Samoa and New York.
There are steps our lawmakers can take to reduce the risk of these outbreaks. For instance, New York Assembly Bill A2371A was passed earlier this year, repealing all non-medical measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine exemptions for public school students. Despite a vocal minority opposition – including Senators Gallivan, Jacobs, Ranzenhofer and Ortt, as well as Assemblymen Schimminger and DiPietro – the bill took effect at the beginning of the 2019 school year. Since then, the number of unvaccinated students in Buffalo dropped from over 5000 to 1500.
The passage of similar bills across the country is a step towards achieving herd immunity and stopping the resurgence of measles nationwide, but to be most effective, we need to see actions like this taken in more cities and states all around the country. Pro-vaccine, pro-public health legislation is necessary for the protection of our community, especially for those who are immunocompromised. Policymakers outside of Buffalo, our Assemblymembers, and Members of Congress need to sponsor legislation like this to prevent more outbreaks.
As constituents, we can help prevent infectious disease outbreaks by educating ourselves on the voting record of our local elected officials and communicating with them in support of pro-vaccine legislation. In addition to advocating for legislation, we can share information about vaccine safety and address anti-vaccine misconceptions within our communities. Working together, we can foster more widespread knowledge and understanding of how vaccines protect our communities, ensuring that vaccine misinformation does not compromise our community health.
If we want to avoid a measles outbreak like the current situation in Samoa, or even like what we have seen in New York before, Buffalo needs strong herd immunity.
In recent news, see DailyMail article on how easily a measles outbreak can happen.
Lead image: Photo by Brandless