Measles Reports Hit Highest Level In Nearly 20 Years Thanks To Anti-Vaccine Movement

The anti-vaccination movement has earned a dubious achievement, the return of a disease that was effectively eradicated 15 years ago.

Childhood Vaccine

The Centers For Disease Control is reporting that cases of measles have hit a level that we have not seen since Bill Clinton was President, and the trend only seems to be going upward:

Measles have infected 129 people in 13 states in 2014, the most in the first four months of any year since 1996, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday as they warned clinicians, parents and others to watch for the potentially deadly virus.

Thirty-four of the cases were imported via travel to other countries, including 17 from the Philippines, where a huge outbreak has affected 20,000 people and caused 69 deaths, said Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

There have been no measles deaths reported from the outbreak in the United States, and none since 2003. But Schuchat acknowledged that “it’s probably just a numbers game, probably just a matter of time until we have more.”  One or two of every 1,000 cases of measles are fatal, according to the CDC.

California, with 58 cases, has been hit hardest by one of the 13 separate outbreaks of measles in the United States. New York has seen 24 infections and Washington state has had 13.

While measles and other childhood diseases may have been effectively eradicated in the United States in the past two decades, that period has also seen the rise of an anti-vaccination movement built about pseudo-science, celebrity, and aided by the fact that it is very easy to spread misinformation in the age of the Internet. It was roughly around the late 90s, for example, when certain researchers and advocates began to claim that there was a link between childhood vaccines and autism. Those claims have been debunked numerous times by studies in the United States and elsewhere around the world, but that has not stopped the myth of the supposed link from being spread about the world. It’s been held, in no small part, by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy, and more recently The Big Bang Theory’s Miyam Bialik and Clueless star Alicia Silverstone. Even Donald Trump has gotten into the act recently, using his Twitter account to spread the myths of the anti-vaccine movement. The platform that celebrity gives people like this, along with how easy it is to share “information” that isn’t necessarily true via Email, Twitter, Facebook and the light makes combating anti-vaccine propaganda difficult at times, especially when you run up against parents who truly seem to believe that they are acting in their child’s best interests by refusing to have them vaccinated.

The role of all of this in the return of previously eradicated diseases is pretty easy to see:

In the past 20 years, a concerted public health campaign, especially among lower-income families, has made measles outbreaks rare. The disease has been considered eradicated since 2000. But today, the number of unvaccinated children has begun to become a problem, Schuchat said. Some people are choosing not to have their children immunized for personal reasons and others are unaware of, or unable to get, vaccinations, before they arrive in the U.S. She said the CDC is also seeing growth in the disease pertussis, also known as whooping cough.

Before vaccinations were available, about 500,000 people were infected with measles annually in the U.S., a number that fell to about 60 after the disease was all but eliminated in 2000. Since 2010, it has increased to an average of 155 cases per year.Still, she said, fewer than one percent of the toddlers in the United States have received no vaccines at all. “Vaccinating your children is still a social norm in this country,” she said.

In a telephone news conference Thursday, CDC Director Thomas Frieden lauded the Vaccines For Children program started in 1994, after a measles outbreak from 1989-1991 resulted in 55,000 cases, primarily because poor and uninsured children had not been immunized. Among children born in the following two decades, the CDC estimated, vaccinations prevented an estimated 322 million illnesses and 732,000 deaths, saving about $295 billion. The program provides free vaccinations for measles and 13 other diseases.


The proportion of vaccinated children varies by state, depending on the toughness of their immunization laws, Sammons said. Nationally the measles, mumps, rubella vaccination rate is over 90 percent, but in 15 states it is below that standard, she wrote. New York magazine reported last month on schools in California and New York with low immunization rates among students, in part because parents are choosing not to vaccinate them.

Obviously, not every new case of measles, whopping cough, or other childhood diseases can be attributed to the anti-vaccine movement. Newly arrived immigrants who were not vaccinated in childhood certainly contribute to these numbers, as do children who are not vaccinated because they are too young to receive the vaccines. However, anything that reduces the number of vaccinated people in a given population increases the risk that a disease outbreak will occur, a concept known as “herd immunity.” In this case, the combination of groups who are more likely to be unvaccinated for social and economic reasons and those who are not vaccinated because of deliberate choice made by their parents means that there is more of a chance for the disease to spread. In theory, those of us who have been vaccinated should be safe from these outbreaks, but even that in part depends on the accuracy of the assumption that vaccinations we got when we were young remain effective as we enter middle age and beyond. Part of the benefit of wiping these diseases out in childhood is that we don’t have to worry about them infecting adult populations, when something like a movement based on psuedo-science makes that more difficult it becomes quite infuriating.

None of this is to suggest that there are no risks to vaccines. Any physician asked about the subject will tell you that there are always risks associated with a vaccination, which is why there’s nothing wrong with parents making themselves aware of those risks rather than just blindly accepting whatever a doctor tells them. At the same time, though, the benefits of vaccination are so clear, that the “vaccinate or don’t vaccinate” debate is no contest:

In 1994, the United States, fresh off a measles epidemic, instituted the Vaccines for Children program to ensure that all children, regardless of income, could get vaccinated. The payoff? 731,700 lives over the past two decades.

Let that sink in for a moment. In a report released today, the Centers for Disease Control says that the program, which is funded through Medicare and Medicaid, has had a staggering effect. You can see it in the vaccination rate alone: In the late 1980s, roughly 70 percent of children were vaccinated for common childhood illnesses—after the program was started, that number jumped well over 90 percent.

The vaccines will prevent, according to the CDC,

  • 322 million illnesses
  • 21 million hospitalizations
  • 731,700 deaths

Those reductions will save roughly $295 billion in direct hospitalization and other costs associated with disease and will save $1.38 trillion in total society costs, the organization says.

“Economic analysis for 2009 alone found that each dollar invested in vaccines and administration, on average, resulted in $3 in direct benefits and $10 in benefits when societal costs are included,” the report concluded.

Given that, it seems pretty clear that vaccination is the right course of action in nearly all cases, and that it’s nothing short of despicable that a movement led mostly by celebrities that know nothing about science is helping to turn back the progress we’ve made in eradicating these disease.

FILED UNDER: Health, Science & Technology, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Hal_10000 says:

    The Vaccines for Children program was one of the rare government programs I supported absolutely. It looks like it has paid off enormously, which is a huge feather in Bill Clinton’s cap (there was some opposition).

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    At 68 not only did I have all the childhood diseases but my two children did as well. In a sense chicken pox is the worse because if you get it the odds are you will get shingles later in life. I had chicken pox when I was about 8 and got shingles the first time when I was 17. I had shingles outbreaks a dozen or more times in my life but each one was less severe than the previous one.

  3. argon says:

    Miyam Bialik is the most disappointing to me. She got a PhD in Neuroscience but still subscribes to woo.

  4. AL-aMEDA says:

    There is a whole nation of hipsters up here where I live – Northern California coastal area about 60 miles north of san Francisco – who shun most vaccinations, and who are, arguably, responsible for the comeback of whooping cough in school in the region.

  5. Pinky says:

    I always figured that if diseases caught up to us, it would be because they mutated and got tougher. I never thought that diseases could just stay where they were and humans would get dumber.

  6. Franklin says:

    All medicines, including vaccines, can have side effects. But one look at a graph showing the number of deaths from these illnesses, before and after vaccines, should be enough to convince anybody that the benefits far outweigh the costs.

  7. grumpy realist says:

    @Franklin: Hell, just put up some pictures like this. (Fascinating story about a woman who managed to live a full life in spite of living most of it in an iron lung.)

  8. michael reynolds says:

    This one is mostly on us, meaning liberals. We do have our share of idiots – they just don’t hate people like right-wing idiots do. Mostly they just have heads stuffed full of pudding. Well-meaning and dumb.

  9. Matt Bernius says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Sadly true.

    Though to some degree the medical community has not helped itself. There is a *grain* of truth in the “over vaccination” argument, as my understanding is that most vaccination schedules and dosages are constructed with the assumption of patient non-compliance.

    Further, the medical community relied for far too long on their assumed air of authority rather than education. Given the number of well publicized issues of prescriptions (*not* vaccines) gone terribly wrong, they should have seen this problem coming and gotten out ahead of it.

    All that said, the amount of crap — not to mention easily disproven — science on this topic is HUGE. Which, as @argon points out, makes it all the sadder that a PhD in Neuroscience would be involved with them (though it should be noted that Neuroscience is no longer specifically focus on biology).

  10. KansasMom says:

    @AL-aMEDA: Yep. I’ve got friends in Marin who frequently proclaim that they will emigrate before they vaccinate.

  11. Kari Q says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I agree that both sides have their idiots; the left is certainly not immune. But the anti-vaccine movement is largely non-ideological idiocy. This link is from Discover in 2011, but multiples surveys over the years have found that the anti-vaccine movement is fortunately quite small, and divided pretty equally between the right and left.

    For an example of anti-science attitudes not linked to fact from the left, you need to look to the anti-GMO movement.

  12. ernieyeball says:

    @Kari Q: For an example of anti-science attitudes not linked to fact from the left, you need to look to the anti-GMO movement.

    One way to start combatting anti-science attitudes no matter who espouses them is to educate those who make claims that some substances are “chemical free”.
    Another approach is to refuse to participate in astrology when asked what your sign is.
    Be Warned. Penn and Teller swear all the time.

  13. Tyrell says:

    I remember the measles still being a common thing when I was about 6. I came down with it and had to stay out of school for 2 weeks – required then. The first week was spent in a darkened room. The second week was normal, except I could not return to school; everything else but that. The vaccine came a year or two after that.

  14. ernieyeball says:

    Those who support anti-science attitudes can hold their conventions at The Big Rock Candy Mountains!

    There’s a lake of stew
    And of whiskey too
    You can paddle all around it
    In a big canoe
    In the Big Rock Candy Mountains