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Anthrax? Smallpox? Worry about measles

Published July 14. 2014 4:00AM

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's decision Friday to shut down a laboratory where live anthrax bacteria was accidentally - but apparently harmlessly - released last month, coupled with the discovery two weeks ago of decades-old vials of smallpox by a government scientist cleaning out a storage room at a separate lab, have raised new fears about deadly pathogens spreading among humans.

Although these incidents are troubling people should really be worried about more common diseases once thought under control but now regarded as growing threats to world health: measles and pertussis, also known as whooping cough.

Recent and recurring outbreaks of these potentially lethal diseases have been attributed to reduced immunization rates among those who recklessly object to the vaccines on flawed religious or ill-informed medical grounds, abetted by disreputable zealots and shamelessly lax authorities.

Dr. Mark Gendreau, vice chairman of emergency medicine at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center and an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Tufts University, wrote in The Los Angeles Times last week about the alarming surge in measles cases.

"This potentially fatal, vaccine-preventable infectious disease was practically eradicated in the U.S. a decade ago, thanks to high vaccination rates. But in May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a sobering report of a dramatic uptick in measles cases in the U.S. this year. Some 539 cases have been reported as of June 27, according to the CDC, the highest number in 20 years. In 2011, which had the second-highest number of measles cases in recent decades, the CDC reported fewer than 200 cases for the entire year."

He adds, "But a persistent mistrust in vaccinations has led to pockets of the un-immunized, despite the extraordinary success and safety of childhood vaccination. Thousands of parents on both sides of the Atlantic continue to refuse or delay selected vaccines, including the one for measles."

Some mistakenly believe vaccinations contribute to autism, but an overwhelming preponderance of medical research has discredited these fraudulent claims.

Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped such crackpots as Jenny McCarthy, formerly a Playboy playmate and host on TV's "The View," who once told The Huffington Post, "Almost all kids get injected toxins very early in life, and our own government clearly acknowledges vaccines cause brain damage in certain vulnerable kids."

Equally culpable have been religious denominations that shun modern medical practices, exposing their children and others who come into contact with them to potentially deadly diseases.

Most troubling is that some states continue, at least tacitly, to allow these communities to avoid complying with public health regulations for immunization.

Earlier this year California permitted parents of public school students to simply check a box on a form that having their children vaccinated violated their "personal beliefs." During that period the number of pertussis cases doubled.

Dr. Gendreau points out, "In a sense, immunization programs have been a victim of their own success. Because of vaccinations, Americans today have little experience with vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles. As a result, they cannot easily appreciate the benefits of vaccination or the risks associated with not vaccinating."

Government health authorities must do away with such vaccine exemptions and treat flagrant violators of immunization regulations as felons.

This newspaper is grateful that the recent lapses involving anthrax and smallpox appear to have caused no harm, and is satisfied that the CDC has taken appropriate measures to correct problems.

However, we would be much more relieved if the government better protected public health by strengthening and rigorously enforcing immunization laws.

As Dr. Gendreau noted, "When new diseases such as MERS or SARS pop up, travelers besiege doctors with questions about how they can protect themselves and their families. But some of those same people are failing to take time-tested precautions against more familiar killers like measles. Each one of us is a stakeholder in community and global health. And in this era of globalization, when people fly frequently to distant parts of the world, infectious disease threats can occur overnight and without notice. We owe it to our children and our communities to protect ourselves."

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