We are in the midst of a measles outbreak around the world. The World Health Organization notes that 2019 is the third year of a worsening trend. Many nations can no longer consider measles eliminated in their country as was the case only a few years ago.
In Samoa citizens been asked to hang red flags outside their homes if they have not received measles vaccinations. Four thousand people, out of a population of 200,000 have been diagnosed with measles in Samoa. On Monday of this week, there were 150 new cases of measles disclosed on the island nation. A national emergency has been declared. All schools have been closed for the emergency. Children under 17 are banned from public gatherings. Vaccinations have been made mandatory. An anti-vaxxer in Samoa who was explaining that the vaccinations are unnecessary and measles can be prevented through natural remedies was arrested earlier this week.
It is not only in Samoa. The World Health Organization has declared this measles outbreak as the world’s largest and fastest moving epidemic.
The Numbers of the Current Measles Outbreak
- In the Democratic Republic of the Congo more than 5,000 people have died this year from a measles outbreak. This far surpasses the death count from the more highly publicized Ebola outbreak in the country. The outbreak has spread to all provinces within the country
- Ukraine has had more than 56,000 measles cases reported this year.
- By early November there were nearly half a million reported measles cases around the worldwide. That is up from 352,000 in 2018.
- In April the World Health Organization announced that the number of measles cases globally quadrupled compared to the same time period in the prior year.
- Children under the age of 5 account for most of the 140,000 annual measles deaths.
- Madagascar from August 2018 to November 2019, reported 244,607 cases of measles, and 1,080 died due to measles, of which 91 percent were children under 14 years old.
- Measles is one of the leading causes of death in Somalia.
- The United States has reported its highest measles outbreak in 25 years.
In 1980 measles was the cause of 2.6 million deaths worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
In the decade before 1963 when a vaccine became available, nearly all children got measles by the time they were 15 years of age. It is estimated 3 to 4 million people in the United States were infected each year. Also each year, among reported cases, an estimated 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) from measles.
By the year 2000 a global vaccination movement was preventing 80 million infections a year. Measles was considered defeated in the United States that year.
The Problem Behind the Measles Outbreak
In every location where vaccination rates are declining and measles cases are surging around the world today, a common trend can be found. The public does not trust their institutions, governments, experts, or healthcare systems. War and poverty may be additional symptoms of the breakdown in many of these nations but those should be seen as correlated issues with the decline of vaccines rather than causes.
As I argue in my recent book, the decline of trust in leadership and systems of authority across the world is setting the globe up for greater and greater levels of chaos today. Many are familiar with the anti-vaccination movement in the United States. Whether you agree or disagree with their stance is not the only thing that should be questioned. What is driving this movement?
The United States has had more than 1,200 cases of measles reported so far this year. Those cases were spread across 31 states but more than three-quarters of these were in New York. There was no surge in poverty, no war or unrest, and no decline in education there. There was a rise in a lack of trust in standard policies of the healthcare system and government when it came to vaccinations. People trust activists and bloggers frequently more than they trust their government, the media, or their experts.
This distrust is not fueled by paranoia alone. Corruption and incompetence are frequently driving the distrust. In Samoa, two babies died last year when their measles vaccination was improperly mixed with expired muscle relaxants instead of water. In 2013 vaccination rates in Samoa were at 90%. Last year it collapsed to 31%. These numbers do not balance. The accidental death of two babies should not reduce a nation’s vaccination rate by 60%. Unfortunately, the voices crying distrust and fear are increasingly heard as more credible than those citing science and reason in many instances today.
The CDC reports: “…parents are not vaccinating their children due to complacency, mistrust or misinformation about vaccines. This year, for example, the United States reported its highest number of cases in 25 years, while four countries in Europe — Albania, Czechia, Greece, and the United Kingdom — lost their measles elimination status in 2018 following protracted outbreaks.”
In the DRC violence against healthcare workers trying to distribute treatment for Ebola embodies the fear and trust embodied among the population that has allowed the outbreak to surge. This same distrust has been witnessed in the resistance to measles vaccinations there and has helped drive the measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The current crisis is not being driven by a failure of medicine or science. It is not being driven by war or poverty. It is being driven by a breakdown of the trust between people and their relationship to the governments, institutions, and systems that organize their world. That is why this may be the beginning of a trend that we will see worsen in the coming years. The 2019 measles outbreak may be only the beginning.