What started as an outbreak at the Disneyland amusement park in California in December has since spread to 14 states.
Most of the victims were unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This latest outbreak has fueled the perennial debate about the pros and cons of the vaccination developed by American vaccinologist Maurice Hilleman in 1968 — and has caught on in other countries.
In the 15 years since the US declared measles defeated, there have been numerous outbreaks of the extremely contagious and potentially fatal virus. In 2014 there were 644 cases, the highest number since measles was — supposedy — eliminated in 2000.
Measles can be prevented with a vaccine so the sharp rise in the number of cases means many parents have stopped immunizing their kids.
One reason is Andrew Wakefield, the poster boy for the modern-day anti-vaccination movement, freaked out parents around the world by linking autism to vaccines in a now discredited paper published in The Lancet in 1998.
The study was debunked and withdrawn by the prestigious medical journal, and Wakefield, who the British Medical Journal described as a “fraud,” was struck off the UK General Medical Council’s register.
But the damage was done.
Despite the fearmongering, most people still get vaccinated. The most recent available data shows 91.9 percent of children aged 19-35 months were vaccinated for measles in 2013. But as this latest outbreak shows, that's not enough.
There are still lots of people in the community who, for religious, political or philosophical reasons, ignore sound medical advice and don’t vaccinate their kids.
Getting these anti-vaxxers, as they are called, to change their minds isn’t easy, particularly when vote-hungry politicians enter the debate.
Republican senator and potential presidential candidate Rand Paul, who is a doctor, recently told CNBC that he had heard of cases where vaccines caused mental disorders.
"I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," he said.
"I'm not arguing vaccines are a bad idea, they're a good thing. But I think the parent should have some input, the state doesn't own your children, parents own the children and it is an issue of freedom."
And this from New Jersey governor Chris Christie, also a Republican and potential presidential candidate: "There has to be a balance, and it depends on what the vaccine is, what the disease type is, and all the rest … Not every vaccine is created equal, and not every disease type is as great a public health threat as others."
But Martin Robbins, who writes for the UK-based website Little Atoms, says explaining the sound science behind vaccination isn't enough to counter the complacency and fear driving the anti-vaccination movement.
... explaining the science in some ways misses the point. I’ve been writing about MMR vaccination on and off for several years now. I can explain that thiomersal, the antiseptic once erroneously linked to autism, is not actually present in modern vaccines. I could explain that formaldehyde is produced naturally by your cells, and is pumping through your blood-stream as you read this. Ultimately though, this isn’t about science or explanations — it’s an issue of trust, and of personal politics.
The US measles outbreak and debate about whether children should be vaccinated or not has caught the attention of people around the world, particularly in countries like Britain and Australia where similar discussions are ongoing.
GlobalPost informally reached out to a few non-American readers and social media users for their views. Here's what they had to say:
From the UK, Kate Nightingale says she is a strong supporter of vaccination.
I work with young children in a school in the UK and the idea that children would go unvaccinated seriously worries me, not just for the health of other children but also for the adults who work with those children. I'm relived that the anti-vaccination movement doesn't seem to have gained much ground here. Long may it stay that way. We all need to look out for each other.
Rayna Stamboliyska said the US debate echoes the one under way in Bulgaria.
We are having such a debate in Bulgaria. There has even been a petition sent to the government to request vaccination not to be mandatory. Overall, the mainstream media have re-posted the petition as is, only a few have published analyses alongside. Conversation in social media is generally negative towards anti-vax. A famous online forum, BG Mama (yeah, the name is as stupid as the ideas it propagates) is what has been nurturing the anti-vax discourse for at least two years now. Some anti-vax Facebook groups also cheer for doctors faking medical certificates so kids are marked as vaccinated in the case of compulsory vax.
Clementine Ford in Australia says most people are pro-vaccination Down Under, where more than 90 percent of children are immunized.
There is a small but strong contingent of anti-vaxxers in Australia. Clusters of them live on the northern NSW coast, and they have coincidentally (or not!) also been the sites of massive outbreaks in whooping cough.
But generally the feeling in Australia is very pro-vaccine and anti-quackery. We're not an especially religious country, so to generalize I would say that anything to do with religious reasoning that comes out of the U.S., including vaccines, reproductive healthcare, homophobia etc, is very baffling to most of us.
French woman Virginie Mangin thinks it's irresponsible not to vaccinate children.
I vaccinated my kids because in France you have to. It’s illegal not to. I really did not think twice. Research proves that vaccination saves lives — millions of lives. Do vaccines also carry health risks? Most probably. That chance is minute but it exists. Everything we do to our bodies has consequences. Does that mean we should stop vaccinating our kids? Of course not. We are saving our children's lives and protecting other kids. I generally think Americans are mad and excessive and have lost all contact with what (French philosopher) Montaigne called 'the middle ground,' i.e. common sense.
Michael Sainsbury, an Australian living in Thailand, says not vaccinating children is a form of abuse.
The reason that infant and child mortality rates in the West, in particular, have plunged in the past century is due to improved medicine and vaccinations. The anti-vaccination movement is, to my mind, absolutely bizarre. Of course, there are risks with all medicines, but the risk of not vaccinating are order of magnitude higher. Childbirth is risky, life is risky — the idea is to plan for and to ameliorate those risks as best we can. My view is that by not vaccinating kids with safe, available vaccinations parents are placing those children, who have absolutely no say in the matter, at risk. It’s is an abrogation of their responsibility. If those children die or are permanently damaged by a disease that could easily have been prevented is there any difference to beating them up or smothering them with a pillow? Are the sins of omission or commission any different if the result if the same?
From France, Christina Aman Riglet says people should have faith in the science behind the vaccines.
Studies show that stopping vaccination correlates with an increase of diseases. In this case, with such small percentage of people suffering side effects, I believe science and medicine should be trusted.
In Mexico, Adriana Ruiz Flores believes parents have a public duty to vaccinate their children.
Measles was eradicated from Mexico a long time ago and this is because everyone got vaccinated. Public health should not be negotiable.
Bernardo De Niz, also in Mexico, agrees.
Public health is not a private thing, it affect everyone in a society. If you don't want your kids to be vaccinated, go and live in the forest away from society.
Australian Fran Nicholson says vaccinating kids is a no-brainer.
I think it is selfish to not vaccinate. There is such a small percentage of side effects compared to keeping the rest of the population free of diseases!