Pseudoscience had an unfortunate victory in an important battle in the European country of Romania, where 39 children lost their lives following a measles outbreak. Their parents refused to vaccinate them, misled by scare stories against vaccination.

“People are mistrustful because they read all sorts of things on the internet,” said Dr. Silvana Dan from the southern regional Prahova Public Health Authority, citing long-refuted but still prevalent rumors that vaccination causes autism.

Measles, once again killing people in the 21st century

It’s a story you don’t expect to hear, and in all truth, it’s one that we shouldn’t be telling in the 21st century. If we have a functional vaccine and the resources to carry out vaccination, having a lethal measles epidemic is simply unacceptable.

Romania is an outlier in Europe. Since late 2016, there have been just over 20,000 cases in Europe, and out of them, 12,000 have been in Romania. Germany had only 919 cases, France had 77, and the UK had 62.  Out of the 49 fatalities reported in Europe, 46 have been in Romania, and 39 of them were children.

The same story is heard over and over again: parents are misled by aggressive media campaigns against vaccination and they simply refuse to vaccinate their children. An 11-month-old died in March after her parents refused to vaccinate her. In the village of Valea Seaca, another baby girl just 10 months old died of measles in February.

“Her parents refused, in writing, to have their children vaccinated after seeing reports on television that vaccines kill,” local mayor Ioan Pravat told AFP.

The problem is further exacerbated in the disadvantaged Roma communities, who rarely ask their family doctor for information.

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But there is also room for progress. Health workers have tried a new approach, literally going door to door and talking to the people in the communities — and there are signs it’s working.

“I don’t want to lie to you. At the beginning I, too, was afraid because I had heard that there could be problems, like causing paralysis,” said Anisoara Iorga. “But then I did get my children vaccinated and they had no problems at all.”

The governing party, PSD (Social-Democrat Party) has also pledged to improve vaccination rates by making 10 child vaccines compulsory. However, debates have progressed slowly, and several amendments by anti-vaccine groups have managed to sneak in. Surprisingly, the anti-vaccination movement is supported by a small minority in the medical community, though most doctors in Romania are, understandably, outraged.

“We have to defend the scientific work (underlying vaccines) while information which has no such basis is taken as the truth,” said Dr. Alexandru Rafila, head of Romania’s microbiology society.

Critics have also accused the governing party of not doing enough to ensure that vulnerable communities have access to proper doses. To make matters even worse, the anti-vaccine narrative is also being pushed by a few local celebrities, spearheaded by former TV presenter Olivia Steer, who admitted that she has vaccinated her own children. Steer is widely known for propagating conspiracy theories and disproven, pseudoscientific claims, but she is still followed by many. Just yesterday (April 18) she received an award for promoting women’s health — although the prize was withdrawn the very next day following public and sponsor outrage.

A bigger lesson

Ultimately, Romania is a cautionary tale for the entire world. Vaccines have largely been a victim of their own success — measles cases plunged from 550,100 in 2000, to just under 90,000 in 2016. Many people see the decline of such cases as a natural cause, disregarding the fact that this very drop was only possible due to vaccines. It also shows just how much damage a single, fraudulent, and long disproven study can do.

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield authored a widely read research paper claiming that there was a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the emergence of autism and bowel disease. Researchers from all around the world were unable to reproduce his results, and a 2004 investigation identified undisclosed financial conflicts of interest on Wakefield’s part. Most of his co-authors withdrew support from the paper after realizing what had happened. Then, the British General Medical council conducted an inquiry and found not only that Wakefield’s results were dishonest and baseless but that he had also subjected children to cruel, unnecessary medical procedures. The study was retracted, and the editor of the Lancet (where the study had been published) wrote that the paper was “utterly false” and that the journal had been “deceived”. Wakefield was subsequently removed from the UK medical register and was banned from practicing medicine due to the intentional falsification of scientific studies.

Wakefield was planning to launch a venture profiting from his fraudulent studies, and still travels the world giving anti-vaccine speeches. In Romania, as well as several other countries (albeit to a lesser extent), children are dying because parents won’t vaccinate their kids.

The World Health Organization recommends a vaccination rate of 95 percent for effective disease control. This also helps with ensuring the so-called herd immunity for the population. In a population where a large number of individuals are immune, the chain of infection is likely to be disrupted, which essentially ensures that no major epidemic sets in. This is particularly important for children one-year-old or younger who haven’t had the chance to be vaccinated yet. However, vaccination rates in Romania are at 87 percent for the first inoculation and only 75 percent for the second, according to the latest official figures from 2016 (measles vaccination requires two doses for optimum protection).  This compromises herd immunity and facilitated the onset of the epidemic.