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How vaccine hesitancy is contributing to deadly measles resurgence

As health care officials around the world struggle to respond to novel coronavirus, another deadly -- and far more contagious -- disease is on the rise, fueled in large part by insufficient immunization. In some countries, military conflict diminishes access to vaccines. But in other parts of the world, misinformation and vaccine hesitancy allow the disease to flourish. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even as health care officials around the world struggle to deal with the coronavirus, a far more contagious disease, measles, is on the rise across the globe.

    Hari Sreenivasan explores what is driving this deadly spike.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Nearly three times as many people have died from measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo than from Ebola. It's the world's worst epidemic of the disease. More than 6,000 are dead, with over 300,000 suspected cases from every province of the country.

  • Pontienne Mwengisa (through translator):

    Measles is a very serious disease that attacks children, and we parents do not know how to defend ourselves against this disease. That's why I wanted him to get the vaccine, so that his body can develop immunity.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And military conflict can prevent everyone who wants the vaccine from getting it.

  • Matutina Lobve (through translator):

    We have fled our villages because there is no peace there. If we also lose peace of mind and in our hearts because of our children's suffering, because of measles, that is a really bad thing for us. We want the vaccine.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Not everyone in a community has to have the vaccine for protection. If 95 percent of a group gets immunized, there's what's called herd immunity, when the high number of vaccinated prevent the spread of an infection.

    But in the Congo, only 57 percent of the population is vaccinated, according to UNICEF.

    There's also the matter of the return visit. According to UNICEF, while 86 percent of the children around the world receive the first dose, fewer than 70 percent receive the recommended second dose.

    Dr. Paul Offit is the director of the vaccine center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

  • Paul Offit:

    It's a disease that's so contagious that you don't even have to have face-to-face contact with someone to catch it. You just have to be in their airspace.

    In other words, if I had measles and left this room, someone really who came into this room within two hours of my being here could catch measles.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Measles can cause a high fever, runny nose, cough and red eyes. During winter, those symptoms can be hard to distinguish from the flu or a common cold.

    After three to five days, a large rash appears, usually starting on the face, before spreading to other parts of the body. It can lead to long-term health impacts, including pneumonia, swelling of the brain and permanent blindness or hearing loss.

    The vaccine is usually administered after a child's first birthday, then again between ages 4 and 6, meaning infants under the age of 1 are most at risk among unvaccinated populations.

    Lack of access to vaccines in a war-torn land is understandable, but what's happening in otherwise tranquil Samoa is something different. Measles killed more than 70 Samoans last year. Nearly 5,000 cases have been reported. Keep in mind, the population here is just over 200,000.

  • Eseta Meki (through translator):

    The nurses tried their best, but, in the end, they told me they couldn't save him.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Here, unvaccinated families place red flags outside their home to signal that they need the vaccine or that someone may be sick.

  • Elsie Lelesio:

    We have a lot of dreams that we need to fulfill for our little ones. But once they are lost, we don't know what to do, and we don't know how to accept it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The government declared a state of emergency, closed schools and banned children from gathering in large groups. Just 31 percent of children under the age of one received the measles vaccine in 2018.

    During the height of the outbreak, Samoan officials arrested prominent anti-vaccine activist Edwin Tamasese, who rose to prominence after claiming the government's vaccination efforts would result in mass casualties.

    Such misinformation is fueling a hesitancy toward vaccines, so much so that the World Health Organization labeled vaccine hesitancy among the top 10 threats to global health.

  • Kate O’Brien:

    Hundreds of millions s of people have received the vaccine. And it is really a collective failure that these outbreaks are happening, and an increase in the number of cases and deaths are happening, and the underlying reason is that people are not vaccinated.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And, thus, measles cases skyrocketed 167 percent worldwide from 2016 to 2018. Deaths climbed from 110,000 in 2017 to 140,000 in 2018.

    Needless to say, it's not just an island chain in the South Pacific surrounded by a sea of misinformation. The shores of the developed world are also inundated. According to the latest numbers available, measles in Europe has doubled, 90,000 cases in the first half of 2019, compared to 84,000 cases for all of 2018.

    More than half those cases came from Ukraine. In addition to being at the center of our impeachment scandal, it is also the center of a population unconvinced by the science.

  • Andriy Cherenkov (through translator):

    No one is showing the other side. There are many harmed children, for example, my nephew. He has autism.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Pediatrician Anna Kukharuk says that idea changes quickly after exposure.

  • Anna Kukharuk (through translator):

    Some people say that measles is a children's illness and it is better to just go through it. But, as soon as they go through the illness, those who were against vaccination ask to be vaccinated.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Lest we think these beliefs are still on foreign soil or that the measles is at bay in the United States, just look at the numbers. Last year, the U.S. reported more than 1,200 confirmed cases, the highest number in 25 years.

    Keep in mind, measles was officially eliminated from the United States in 2000; 73 percent of America's cases in 2019 were linked to recent outbreaks in New York, with the vast majority reported in Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn, where distrust of vaccinations is prevalent.

    And the spread of misinformation around vaccines has been gathering steam for years here. Celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Robert Kennedy famously have spoken out against vaccines.

    Here's then candidate Donald Trump at a Republican presidential debate:

  • President Donald Trump:

    Just the other day, 2 years old, 2.5 years old, a child, a beautiful child went, to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Such scientifically unfounded claims mean experts like Paul Offit have to keep emphasizing their safety.

  • Paul Offit:

    The frustration, I think, is, it's an excellent vaccine. This vaccine actually has the capacity to eliminate measles from the face of the Earth, much in the same manner that we eliminated smallpox from the face of the Earth.

    So, we can do this. We don't have to suffer the 150,000 deaths.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The misinformation is perhaps the only thing more contagious than the virus. It spreads quickly, thanks to closed Facebook groups with thousands of members.

    Another reason these ideas spread is a lack of firsthand exposure. It is important to remember that measles has been preventable for 60 years, and most young people have never seen its effects.

  • Paul Offit:

    I have seen a lot of measles. I can tell in 30 seconds whether or not it's measles. It's how sick the child looks. Often, they're photophobic, meaning they're intolerant to light.

    They look down. They're squinting, because they sort of have this sort of mild encephalopathy. And they're ill. Measles makes you sick, and measles can make you dead.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Experts estimate that, over the last 18 years, the measles vaccination alone has saved more than 23 million lives.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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