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Measles: Thinning the Herd

January 22, 2015 Leave a comment

CDC Measles51 confirmed cases of measles. Really? Measles? John Franklin Enders first isolated measlesvirus in 1954, and immediately began work to develop a cure. In 1960, Enders began to test his measles vaccine, and a year later he announced that the vaccine was 100% effective.

Now, more than half a century later, we have a problem. There hasn’t been a failure with the vaccine, or in the scientific process. The measles vaccine is still ~100% effective. We continue to dive deeper into molecular mechanisms of disease and come up with clever cures. A paper published just two days ago demonstrates stem cell therapy as a treatment for multiple sclerosis.  However, we do have a social problem that unfortunately bleeds into global health.

It’s interesting that a lot of diseases have been well characterized and would not be an issue if not for social dysfunction. Take polio for example. The polio vaccine is extremely effective. There are enough doses of polio vaccine to go around and in fact the WHO actively sends teams of vaccinators to the last three countries where polio is endemic: Pakistan, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. Despite vaccine efficacy, there are uneducated radicals opposed to vaccination, and often these groups are violently hostile. Efforts to eradicate polio have been undermined, and it’s because of social problems. In the U.S., we may not have violent extremists opposed to vaccination, but we do have major social issues.

herd-immunity1. We take for granted herd immunity (or ignore it completely).

People hear about the 0.01% chance of adverse reaction to a vaccine, in contrast to the low odds of contracting measles in the U.S., and choose not to vaccinate their children. As far as I’m aware, there is no scientific fix for ignorance. The only real solution is education.

2. Ignorance often trumps scientific evidence.

Let’s start with Andrew Wakefield. In the late 90’s, this guy published a fraudulent paper that drew a link between vaccines, autism, and gastrointestinal disease. The paper was disproven, and after an investigation, many signs of misconduct came to light. Sure, fraud happens, and it would have been okay if not for what happened next.

Normally the conclusions of a disproven paper are disregarded. But the torch had already been lit and the anti-vaccine movement had begun. Jenny McCarthy used her public position to advocate the anti-vaccine movement, claiming her child developed autism due to vaccines. People empathize with anecdotes. (Please allow this brief interruption for an introduction to the Jenny McCarthy Body Count: Deaths attributable to the anti-vaccine movement) The torch is now a wildfire. Again, we have an example of social dysfunction that could be effectively fixed with education.

Sometimes it takes a disaster to develop a fix. Unfortunately, this problem can’t be solved with any technology or scientific advancement. Alas, social science may be relevant, thanks to measles.

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