Measles Outbreak in U.S.: Top 5 Conspiracy Theories

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A Disneyland outbreak of measles has spiraled into a nationwide debate about the anti-vaccine movement and its lasting effects on the health of Americans.

CNN reports that just one month into 2015, there are 102 cases of measles reported across 14 states. In 2014, there were 644 cases of measles reported total. That means at this rate, we could expect expect at least double the amount of measles cases in the U.S. for 2015.

President Obama, Governor Chris Christie, and other public officials have all weighed in on the debate with news organizations focusing on the anti-vaxxer movement.

But what is the anti-vaxxer movement and what sort of fringe theories do they believe?

Here are the top 5 conspiracy theories associated with measles and other sorts of vaccines.


1. Egyptians Thought Measles was a Natural Stage of Childhood Development

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(Getty)

One main point anti-vaxxers like to bring up is that measles is an ancient disease. It is acknowledged in many ancient manuscripts throughout antiquity.

Measles arose in the Middle East and it is first mentioned in text by ancient Egyptians. According to Principles and Practice of Clinical Virology by Arie J. Zuckerman:

…the first known reports of measles (in Egyptian hieroglyphics) failed to recognize the infectious nature of the illness, and described it as a normal part of child growth and development.

Anti-vaxxers choose to still view measles this way, as another childhood illness similar to chickenpox.

However, there’s a stark contrast between measles and chickenpox as Redditor kgt5003 eloquently explains in a discussion about ancient Egyptians and the measles. They write:

But the Measles, as all diseases do, mutated into more deadly strains when people’s immune systems were fighting it off easily on their own. That is what diseases do. They evolve until they are able to accomplish their aim. The problem with people not being vaccinated for the Measles now is that if enough unvaccinated people get the Measles it will again evolve into a strain that nobody is vaccinated for/no vaccination exists for which could start a pandemic. Nobody wants Measles, Polio, Diphtheria, etc. to make a comeback. People live much longer, healthier lives now without that shit.

This is backed up by NewScientist.com:

It seems unthinkable that we could lose the measles vaccine. Yet we might. Just as bacteria mutate and become resistant to antibiotics, so viruses mutate to outwit a child’s vaccine-induced immunity. Both these pharmacological weapons must be used wisely to stop their targets evolving resistance. While there is no sign yet that any measles virus has completely escaped the power of the vaccine, there are growing fears that it may be able to (see “Monster in the making”). The faster we get everyone vaccinated, the less likely this is to happen.

According to the WHO, measles “is one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available.”

Measles has doomsday capabilities. Chickenpox, on the other hand, only kills about 100 people per year. And there is now a chickenpox vaccine available, too.


2. Measles Vaccine Contains Toxins

Anti-vaxxers are vocally fearful of their childrens safety, saying that catching the measles is a lot less worse than putting unknown chemicals like the measles vaccine into their bodies.

For such arguments they often cite horrible stories from around the globe, like this one reported by The Sydney Morning Herald:

As many as 36 children were on Tuesday night reported to have died excruciating deaths after receiving tainted measles vaccines under a United Nations-sponsored program in the rebel-held north of Syria.

The program was suspended amid rumours of sabotage surrounding the high-profile international effort to ensure the civil war does not result in an outbreak of measles.

Using these stories as fodder for their fears, anti-vaxxers often overlook the political zeitgeist that most of these stories take place in. More so, this tragedy from war torn Syria is the only story one can find about tainted vaccines causing death. A Google search brings up nothing more.


3. Anti-Vaxxers Fear the Government

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(Getty)

Anti-vaxxers are notoriously anti-government, fearing that their right to not inoculate their children against preventable diseases will soon be trumped by the federal government.

Such opinion columns like that of USA Today columnist Alex Berezow often corroborate their fears. Berezow writes:

Parents who do not vaccinate their children should go to jail.

Anti-vaxxers often claim the right not to put “poison” in their children’s bodies. That is ludicrous. A mountain of data has demonstrated that vaccines are safe and effective. Insisting otherwise is akin to believing that the moon landing was faked.

Anti-vaxxers then often turn to the Constitution and their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as being at stake.

However, there are currently no laws being made to penalize anti-vaxxers… but there’s been a lot of discussion. An academic article titled Free to Choose but Liable for the Consequences: Should Non- Vaccinators Be Penalized for the Harm They Do? writes:

Is there a case or holding non-vaccinators legally liable for harm caused to others by their inaction? This will depend on the answers to two questions. First, does the scientific capability exist to prove that Jinny infected Michael with measles? If so, are there legal grounds for either criminal or civil liability?

What do you think should be done? Should there be legal ramifications for anti-vaxxers if admissible in court? Comment below.


4. Vaccines Cause Autism

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Actress Jenny McCarthy arrives at the 2013 Billboard Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 19, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (David Becker/Getty Images)

One of the biggest arguments by the anti-vaccine movement is that vaccines are the cause of the dramatic rise of autism diagnosis for children in the United States.

The movement picked up media attention when former Playboy Playmate of the Year Jenny McCarthy championed the cause.

According to ScienceBasedMedicine.org:

In recent years the antivaccine movement has focused on the claim that vaccines are linked to neurological injury, and specifically to the neurological disorder autism, now referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However the scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows no correlation between vaccines in general, the MMR vaccine specifically, or thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative) in vaccines with ASD or other neurodevelopmental disorders.

The primary argument made for an association between thimerosal and ASD is that the rate of diagnosis of ASD has been steadily increasing since the early 1990s. At that time also the routine vaccine schedule was increasing, resulting in an increasing total dose of thimerosal. The antivaccinationists then assume causation from correlation to blame rising ASD rates on thimerosal.

However, by 2002 thimerosal was completely removed from the routine vaccine schedule, and now remains only in some flu vaccines. The total dose of thimerosal exposure is far below 1990 levels, before ASD diagnoses began to rise. Antivaccinationists predicted that ASD rates would fall dramatically in the years following the removal of thimerosal from most vaccines – but rates have continued to rise without even the slightest change in the rate of increase. This is a powerful refutation of the thimerosal-autism hypothesis, and has been replicated in other countries.

The rate in increase of autism is probably best attributed to the fact that doctors have gotten better at diagnosing it since it was identified in 1943 by child psychiatrist Leo Kanner.


5. Measles Transmitted by Vaccinated People

This is one of the more bizarre beliefs that some anti-vaxxers hold.

The basis for their hypothesis comes from a 2011 New York City measles scare. A April 2014 article from ScienceMag.com writes:

… a fully [twice] vaccinated 22-year-old theater employee in New York City who developed the measles in 2011 was released without hospitalization or quarantine. But like Typhoid Mary, this patient turned out to be unwittingly contagious. Ultimately, she transmitted the measles to four other people, according to a recent report in Clinical Infectious Diseases that tracked symptoms in the 88 people with whom “Measles Mary” interacted while she was sick. Surprisingly, two of the secondary patients had been fully vaccinated. And although the other two had no record of receiving the vaccine, they both showed signs of previous measles exposure that should have conferred immunity.

There is basis to this story, however. The Oxford Journal writes:

This is the first report of measles transmission from a twice vaccinated individual. The clinical presentation and laboratory data of the index were typical of measles in a naïve individual. Secondary cases had robust anamnestic antibody responses. No tertiary cases occurred despite numerous contacts. This outbreak underscores the need for thorough epidemiologic and laboratory investigation of suspected measles cases regardless of vaccination status.

This rare occurrence could stem from the fact that people aren’t getting vaccinated and that measles is mutating, as cited in fact one, or that this person simply holds a strange genetic make-up. It wasn’t too long ago that it was discovered that many Northern Europeans are resistant to HIV.