Science Policy For All

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Ebola or Measles: Which is the greater threat to the US?

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By: Aminul Islam, Ph.D.

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With the public hysteria and extensive media coverage of Ebola in the US subsiding and the spread of Ebola in West Africa appearing to be coming under control with declining numbers of new cases in the region; I was asking myself, what should people in the US be really afraid of? Were we ever at risk from Ebola in the US? Or is there another very real epidemic-based threat to be concerned with here at home? According to CDC data, there were four cases of Ebola in the US resulting in one death during 2014. Measles however, accounted for 644 cases in 2014, spanning 23 different outbreaks across the nation. Measles has the propensity to cause severe complications, injury and death. Since 2010 the average number of measles cases per year has been nearly 160, culminating in the huge spike in 2014. It may be almost inevitable that we could soon see the first death from measles in the US since it was declared to be eliminated from the country in 2000.

So what are the underlying reasons for such an increase in the numbers of people with measles? Similar to why Ebola reached the US shores, we truly live in a globalized age where people, commodities, livestock and micro-organisms alike can travel and reach every corner of the planet. Unlike the US, not every nation has the best healthcare system and infrastructure backed with highly funded medical research programs; and until this issue is resolved, the US will always be at constant risk from overseas microbial threats. While scientists search for a vaccine for Ebola, there is an effective MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine available against measles. So why are increasing numbers of Americans getting measles since the declaration of 2000? One explanation for this could be that for a number of recent years an ideology has existed in the US via an ‘Anti-Vaccination Movement’ that supports the belief that vaccinations are associated with negative health benefits, and in the case of the MMR vaccine specifically a link to autism, for which there is no credible scientific evidence. This has led to a decline in MMR vaccinations in the US resulting in vaccination levels below the threshold to produce herd immunity (about 90%) in some parts of the country. Furthermore, this anti-vaccination message has been supported by vocal celebrity and health science activists alike through the new-age/populist tool of social media which is capable of reaching large audiences very quickly. Compared to the challenges in African communities facing Ebola, this American community is definitely not against vaccinations as a result of poor education and/or belonging to a low socio-economic class.

So how do we counteract such an issue? Drawing parallels to the reasons why we are seeing success with Ebola in West Africa, we have to target these communities directly and specifically. We need to engage them in a way to overcome their beliefs about vaccinations and use appropriate strategies to build trust and dispel myths about the scientific rational behind vaccines. In other words, we need to develop science and public health policies that are not only designed to deal with infectious disease but also with misleading ideology.

So to answer the question which outbreak is a greater threat to Americans, Ebola or measles? Based on the evidence so far, I would say measles. The challenge facing us now is to convince every American in every community across all 50 States.

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 4, 2015 at 9:00 am

Posted in Essays

Tagged with , ,

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