While measles was once common, the disease was declared eliminated in the US in 2000 thanks to the widespread use of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Today, our country is seeing a resurgence more than 55 years after the measles vaccine was first developed in 1963. Most people no longer remember the dangers of this infectious disease, which can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, and death. Sadly, we’re now being reminded of the true toll that measles can take. And while it can affect people of all ages, it’s particularly dangerous for babies and young children. One or two in 1,000 children who contract measles will die.
Contagious diseases spread quickly — and so does misinformation. There is plenty of “fake news” circulating about measles and the MMR vaccine. Some erroneously believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism, even though vaccine safety experts say there is no link between the two. Others have been led to believe the vaccine contains ingredients that violate their religious beliefs, although religious authorities have ruled they do not violate Jewish, Islamic or Catholic law.
That’s why, as the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, I helped lead an oversight hearing earlier this year on the current measles outbreak, which has affected my home state of Kentucky, and the safety of vaccines. Experts from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) answered our questions on the contagious nature of measles, the safety of the MMR vaccine, strategies to prevent the further spread of the disease, and the role of misinformation in the latest outbreak.
At our hearing, I made it a point to specifically ask about the safety of the MMR vaccine, as many parents have expressed their concerns to me. The answer was, unequivocally, that the MMR vaccine is safe for healthy children. Just a few weeks ago, yet another study — one that looked at data from more than 650,000 children — found the MMR vaccine creates no increased risk of autism. Parents who are worried about the safety of the vaccine should consult their pediatricians to alleviate any concerns. The CDC and state health departments also offer resources for parents looking to find information about the safety of vaccines.
During the hearing, we also learned from experts about the importance of “herd immunity,” which is achieved when 93-95% of a community are vaccinated, thereby protecting the remaining few like newborns or people with weakened immune systems who can’t get the shot. Vaccination rates across the United States can vary greatly, and many communities in the US have lost that precious herd immunity status.
As a parent, I certainly understand the fear that many parents have regarding the safety of their children. I can appreciate why parents might be wary of the government requiring vaccinations. But the facts are clear: the MMR vaccine is effective, and it eradicated measles in 2000. Just last month, Trump weighed in on the measles outbreak and said, “They have to get the shots. The vaccinations are so important. This is really going around now. They have to get their shots.”
Let’s remember that before the measles vaccination, an estimated 3 to 4 million people were infected each year in the US, and when the vaccine was developed, parents were thrilled to be able to protect their kids from this disease. While many of us have forgotten the toll that measles can take, the dangers of this disease are very real. I urge parents to get the right information and vaccinate their children.