An outbreak of measles in the South Pacific island nation of Samoa has gotten so severe that its government will shut down Thursday and Friday so that government officials can assist with a mass vaccination effort. As The Washington Post reported Monday, the outbreak has killed 53 people — 48 of them children under age 4 — and infected 3,728. “Schools have been closed, children are banned from large public gatherings, and parents have been urged to bring their children to a doctor at the first signs of illness,” the Post reported. And vaccination now is mandatory.
Like the outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases we’ve seen in the United States, the measles outbreak in Samoa can be attributed to increased international travel (which is a fact of modern life) and the global perpetuation of a lie, which must be countered and condemned.
This dangerous lie? That vaccines are unsafe.
Unfortunately, that lie was given an assist in Samoa in 2018 when two nurses — later imprisoned for negligence — administered doses of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine that had been wrongly mixed with a liquid muscle relaxant instead of water, and two infants tragically died.
The infants died not because of the MMR vaccine — which is both safe and life-saving — but because of human error.
Unfortunately, as the Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift wrote, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.”
Immunization rates dropped in Samoa.
And anti-vaccination activists — including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late RFK and nephew of President John F. Kennedy — seized on the infants’ deaths to gin up fears about the MMR vaccine.
In June, according to the Post, Kennedy visited Samoa, where he was photographed with an arm around an Australian Samoan anti-vaccine activist.
Kennedy is a uniquely dangerous anti-vaxxer because his famous last name has given him a microphone. Shamefully, he uses that microphone to peddle the disproved theory that vaccines cause autism.
A British doctor since stripped of his medical license came up with that bonkers claim. It’s been discredited by multiple, reputable scientific studies, including one published earlier this year that “confirmed that the risk for autism was no different in children who got the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine than in children who did not — and the vaccine did not trigger autism even in children who had risk factors for the disorder,” Dr. Mark Widome, a pediatrician and distinguished professor of pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine, wrote in an LNP op-ed in March.
Kennedy’s own relatives have taken him to task for his harmful misinformation campaign.
In a Politico article headlined “RFK Jr. Is Our Brother and Uncle. He’s Tragically Wrong About Vaccines,” three relatives — former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former Massachusetts Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Maeve Kennedy McKean, executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Health Initiatives — wrote that their beloved “Bobby” is “complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.”
“We are proud of the history of our family as advocates of public health and promoters of immunization campaigns to bring life-saving vaccines to the poorest and most remote corners of America and the world,” they wrote. “On this issue, Bobby is an outlier in the Kennedy family.”
And the anti-vaccination claptrap he and others spread on social media, they wrote, “is having heartbreaking consequences.”
The consequences in Samoa were worsened by a health system that struggled to deal with the current outbreak.
You don’t need to look to a distant country, however, to see negative consequences of anti-vaccination sentiment.
Since the beginning of this year, 1,261 individual cases of measles have been confirmed in 31 states, including Pennsylvania, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which notes, “This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1992.”
The CDC reports that “123 of the people who got measles this year were hospitalized, and 61 reported having complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis.”
So this very contagious disease should not be viewed as a mere inconvenience or harmless childhood rite of passage. Pneumonia and encephalitis — inflammation of the brain — can be fatal.
And measles can have lasting implications for an individual’s health.
According to two recently published studies — one led by Harvard Medical School researchers — measles can diminish a person’s immunity to infections to which he or she previously was immune. This is called “immune amnesia.”
As an article on the Harvard Medical School website explains, if a person “had 100 different antibodies against chicken pox before contracting measles, they might emerge from having measles with only 50, cutting their chicken pox protection in half. That protection could dip even lower if some of the antibodies lost are potent defenses known as neutralizing antibodies.”
The study’s first author, Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, offered this analogy: “Imagine that your immunity against pathogens is like carrying around a book of photographs of criminals, and someone punched a bunch of holes in it. It would then be much harder to recognize that criminal if you saw them.”
Same goes for your body and diseases it should recognize and fight off — but now cannot because measles has depleted your antibodies and eroded your immune memory.
As study co-author and Harvard geneticist Stephen Elledge put it, this erasure of the immune memory makes measles more dangerous than previously imagined — and the MMR vaccine more of an imperative than ever.
Parents in Samoa have had to bury their unvaccinated children. They are living the horrors of childhood disease that most of us have forgotten, thanks to the effectiveness of vaccines.
We cannot allow those who traffic in junk science to take us backward.