The United States is experiencing an alarming measles outbreak, with 626 cases in 22 states as of mid-April. The majority have been among residents of New York state, where the situation is so grave that it has prompted two separate public health emergency declarations this month in an attempt to curtail the spread of this highly infectious disease.
Thirty years ago, our country battled an outbreak of measles that sickened more than 55,000 people and caused over 11,000 hospitalizations. The 1989–91 epidemic ultimately killed up to 166 people, many of whom were young children. While that crisis and the latest one were both hastened by a lack of timely immunization of young children, the reasons for nonvaccination were quite different.
In the past, parents were often unaware of the importance of protecting their children with the primary series of shots by the age of 2 and often waited until proof of immunization was required for their children to enter school. Today, parents are being targeted online and within their communities with disinformation about the safety and necessity of vaccines, and are purposefully delaying or declining them out of a fear that they are unsafe or a belief that they are unnecessary.
Read more commentary:
The measles outbreak of 1989–91 was what led me and former Arkansas first lady Betty Bumpers to form the organization Every Child By Two. Our mission was to save children from deadly diseases by helping parents recognize that it was critical for babies to receive their primary vaccines by age 2, and by removing the barriers that prevented this. Betty and I traveled to every state and helped raise awareness and develop coalitions to overcome difficulties within communities. We worked with our state partners to support the implementation of state-by-state school vaccine requirements, many of which were made law during the Carter administration.
Over the past 30 years, many of the obstacles to timely immunization have been eliminated, thanks to the hard work of our partners at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), medical associations and nonprofit organizations committed to the health of our nation’s children. The “medical home” concept has been put into practice, helping to ensure that children do not fall through the cracks of the health care system. Immunization information systems have been developed so that families can be better aware of their immunization status and providers can reach out when shots are due.
The Vaccines for Children Program, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, has helped to alleviate financial barriers by offering free vaccines to children who qualify. The Affordable Care Act also requires that health plans offer all CDC-recommended vaccines without copays or deductibles, and Medicare covers most adults.
The new threat is disinformation
Today, as our nation faces another outbreak of deadly measles and with the number of cases rising daily, we battle a different threat: disinformation. This crisis is not caused by an inability to access life-saving vaccines. Rather, families have been misled into believing that vaccines pose a greater risk than the diseases they prevent. This is simply untrue.
According to the CDC, for the 4 million children born each year in the United States who are vaccinated according to the recommended schedule, 42,000 lives are saved and 20 million cases of diseases are prevented.
Measles is a very dangerous disease, particularly for children, and there is no cure. About 1 in 4 people in America who get measles will be hospitalized and risk complications of blindness, deafness or pneumonia; 1 out of every 1,000 will develop brain swelling, which could lead to permanent brain damage; and 1 or 2 out of 1,000 will die, even with the best care.
Our organization, now renamed Vaccinate Your Family: The Next Generation of Every Child by Two, continues our efforts to educate the public, the news media and policymakers about the critical importance of timely immunizations for all ages. Families should understand that opting out places their loved ones and their community in grave danger. It is critical that people take the time to consider the sources of health information they are accessing via the Internet and elsewhere to ensure that they are evidence-based.
Get the facts: Vaccines are safe and effective, and they save lives.
Rosalynn Carter, a former first lady of the United States, is co-founder and president of Vaccinate Your Family.
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Disinformation is the new barrier to measles vaccines, and it's deadly: Rosalynn Carter