Measles is killing both children and adults in Europe, in an outbreak largely fueled by anti-vaccination fears.
A worrying trend
Between 1855 and 2005, measles has been estimated to have killed about 200 million people worldwide, being responsible for some of the worst outbreaks in modern history. The first measles vaccine was developed in 1963, and has since been significantly improved. As a result, fatalities have decreased tremendously in recent years -- up until recently.
In the past few years, an anti-scientific movement has slowly risen up: antivaxxing. Emerging as a fringe movement and initially discarded and ignored -- after all, why would anyone reject a scientific advancement that saves lives -- antivaxxing has grown to the point where it's having an important impact: scaring people away from vaccines, and making everyone more vulnerable to the threat of diseases like measles.
[Also Read: The Pseudoscience of Antivaxxing]
More and more people are avoiding the MMR vaccine, against measles, mumps and rubella, and, as a result, more and more people are starting to contract the disease. Two years ago, in 2016, there were 5,273 measles cases. In 2017, it grew to 23,927, and this year, in the first six months alone, there were over 41,000 cases -- culminating in 37 fatalities.
Populists step in
As it happens, the measles virus got an unexpected ally: populist politicians, generally from the far right side of the spectrum. Donald Trump has placed himself in the antivaxxer camp, telling an alleged story about a two-year-old who “got” autism a week after she had the MMR -- of course, without presenting any facts to support this idea. In France, Marine Le Pen has encouraged people to refuse vaccines, and it should surprise no one that her positions often fall in the far right. Italy’s attempt to boost vaccination hit a brick wall when the new populist government decided to relax legislation.
But vaccine refusal doesn't blanket any party or political affiliation. Instead, the more common characteristic seems to be a tendency towards conspiracy theories -- and especially, a dislike of big pharma companies. Fueled by hate and fear, amplified by social media bots and supported by populist politicians, antivaxxers have achieved their goals: they've spread the seeds of doubt, and the seeds have taken root -- and that root is this major outbreak.
What we can do
As The Guardian's Sarah Boseley explains, you don't read about vaccines causing autism in the newspapers anymore -- it's simply been shown to be false, time and time again. But in the modern era of social media, it doesn't matter that much. People (and bots) can simply spread fear and doubt, even if it completely disregards the truth.
What is important here is that we're all in this together. No one wants to have another measles outbreak, no one wants their loved ones to be at risk. We can't let the diseases win, and we have the best tools to fight them. So let's do it together, shall we?