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Could Michigan learn something from the U.K.'s history with measles?

Feb 16, 2015

There are now 121 cases of measles in the U.S., with one confirmed case in Michigan. That’s according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control. Of those cases, 85% are linked to an outbreak at Disneyland.

BBC News Health Editor James Gallagher said that in the U.K. doctors try to convince parents to vaccinate their children within the first year of life instead of just before they go to school.
Credit FLICKR USER PAHO/WHO / FLICKR

But the measles story winds its way further back than that. 2014 marked a record number of measles cases – 644 cases in 24 states – the biggest number since the U.S. declared measles eliminated in 2000.

The United Kingdom has faced a similar history with measles, one Michigan could learn from. Two years ago, moms and dads in the UK faced similar questions about the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, or MMR, as parents here are facing now.

“This started in Wales – in the south of Wales – and it turned into the largest outbreak in 18 years," said BBC News Health Editor James Gallagher. "It was more than 2,000 cases by the time it was all wrapped up and it spread to other locations – areas in the northeast and northwest of England as well.” 

In 1996, two years before British doctor Andrew Wakefield alleged a (now debunked) scientific link between autism and vaccines, vaccination rates were at 92%, Gallagher said.

Then, however, Wakefield’s research was published in February of 1998. Gallagher attributed the significant drop in vaccination rates – to 80% generally, and 50% in some areas, in 2003 – to a “sustained media pressure around MMR” that ensued upon the publication of Wakefield’s research.

While the vaccination rate in the U.K. is now at record levels of higher than 92%, he noted that the previous drop in vaccination rates “left this generation of children that have a much lower level of protection against measles than people on either side.”

Gallagher attributed the U.K.’s climb out of such low levels of vaccinations to the way Wakefield’s scientific theories were dislodged.

“The science that he based that study on was slowly but surely completely torn apart in this country and that’s probably one of the reasons why the vaccination rate went up again, because no longer was the core argument being that maybe MMR is damaging to children,” Gallagher said. “Those claims were rubbish.”

Gallagher says the lesson for Michigan and the world, is that measles hasn’t gone away.

“It’s not like small pox. This isn’t a disease that has been eliminated from the world, this is one of the most infectious diseases around, and if you don’t vaccinate your children, and enough other people make the same decision, then it will come back.”