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Forget Ebola. This is the viral epidemic that should really terrify Americans

Black and white handout photo from Wednesday, March 19, 2003 showing an electron microscope picture taken by German "Marburger Institut fuer Virologie" with samples of isolated structures of paramyxovirus, the family of microbes that causes measles, mumps and canine distemper. The finding was the first potential clue to the source of illness in the three weeks since it came to attention of health experts. Three persons from Singapore believed infected with a mysterious form of pneumonia that hit partsof Asia were taken off an airplane Saturday and quarantined in Frankfurt. Nine people have died. Distance 100 nm are 100 billionth meter. (AP Photo/HO
AP Photo
It’s a heck of a lot more contagious than Ebola.
By Gwynn Guilford
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The first patient to come down with the deadly Ebola virus has turned up in Dallas. On Sep. 19, the patient had traveled there from Liberia, which along with Guinea and Sierra Leone is one of three West African countries ravaged by the virus. He’s not actually the first Ebola patient to be in the US; four American medical missionaries working in the region have been evacuated to the US for treatment since the summer. And though we’ve already discussed why it’s highly unlikely that the virus will spread, the fact that the patient was symptomatic for at least four days before being placed in isolation is likely to press the American panic button.

But if Americans really want a viral epidemic to freak out about, here it is:

Yes, measles—the same virus that was eliminated from the US in 2000. Spread through the air, measles—which causes respiratory system infections, rash, and in some cases, encephalitis—is many, many times more contagious than Ebola. The US was able to eliminate native strains of the measles virus thanks to several nationwide childhood vaccination campaigns. But the disease still strikes Americans because, like the unfortunate Dallas patient, people bring viral strains into the US all the time. And those foreign strains can infect people who are unvaccinated. Typically, that’s meant those who are too young for the vaccination or those with an allergy or another illness that has compromised their immune system.

But in the three biggest outbreaks in 2014, the virus was transmitted when someone introduced a measles strain from outside the US into communities where pockets of people had refused vaccination because of philosophical, religious, or personal beliefs, according to the CDC. Of the 195 US residents who contracted measles and were unvaccinated as of May 23, 85% had declined immunization on those grounds, versus 68% from 2004 to 2008 (pdf).

Centers for Disease Control
Percentage of US residents with measles who were unvaccinated by reason for not receiving the vaccination (Jan. 1-May 23, 2014)

The recent surge in measles arguably is due to the anti-vaccine movement, led primarily by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, who has espoused the baldly erroneous belief that measles vaccinations cause autism. The former co-host of “The View” has since shifted the emphasis of her position that she supports vaccines, but not the medically accepted vaccination schedule; however, as this pediatrician argues, “the damage has been done.”

The fact that many parents in wealthy enclaves in California are declining to vaccinate their children helped spur an outbreak there earlier this year. In one small school in Sausalito, near San Francisco, just 26% of incoming kindergarteners arrived vaccinated; the CDC’s target is 90%.


Centers for Disease Control
The number and percentage of US measles cases not directly imported has picked up in recent years.

The 592 cases reported thus far in 2014 are a far cry from the measles incidence before the vaccination campaign started, in 1963. Back then, about 550,000 Americans came down with the virus each year; around 500 of those people died. But it’s still the highest number of cases since measles was “eliminated.” As if measles weren’t scary enough, whooping cough (a.k.a. pertussis) and other pernicious (commonly) childhood diseases are also on the rise. As a study last year of a 2010 California whooping cough outbreak found, more people declined to vaccine their children for “nonmedical reasons” than any year since 1947, when the vaccine was introduced.

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