Collectively, society has a short memory.
We forget the hard lessons learned by our forebears, a fact that all too often proves true the notion that “history repeats itself.”
Case in point — in recent years, Canadian provinces have experienced renewed outbreaks of measles. Significant outbreaks have occurred in Quebec, Alberta, and most recently British Columbia, where some 228 cases broke out in the Fraser Valley this year alone.
And over the last two weeks, Manitoba has had two confirmed cases of measles. The Winnipeg Free Press reported that since 1992, there has not been more than a single case of measles in Manitoba in any given year — and almost never in that time has it been homegrown. Usually, travellers have brought the highly contagious virus back with them from elsewhere.
The 40-something-year-old who lives in the Interlake region and who contracted the disease first, had not travelled outside the province. He then passed it on to a second man in his 20s who lives in Winnipeg.
This is troubling because it means that, for whatever the reason — fear of needles, religious reasons or a belief that vaccines cause other medical problems such as autism — more people are remaining unvaccinated for the disease.
And it’s not just the measles. Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute says across the country many diseases that are preventable with the use of vaccines are coming back.
“We’re seeing the measles, we’re seeing the mumps, we’re seeing pertussis, whooping cough, come back,” Wilson told the CBC in a recent interview. “I think then it becomes apparent that this collective decision by several individuals starts to have a population-level effect.”
Fear is a strong motivator for the general population. But for many years, significant and widespread use of vaccines for diseases like measles have given people a false sense of security, and let a certain segment of the population believe they don’t need vaccines to remain healthy.
There are several websites online and on Facebook dedicated to the anti-vaccination movement — basically made of folks who place vaccines or their ingredients for a wide range of maladies, including autism. Signs of autism in children typically begin appearing around the same age that vaccines are first administered, leaving parents to believe there is a causal link between the two.
It doesn’t help matters that a British study some years ago claimed such a link between autism and vaccinations in children. Though the claim was debunked by the scientific community, the belief has somehow survived.
Before the use of vaccines became widespread in Canada, large measles epidemics occurred typically every two to three years. Every year in this country, the disease was responsible for, on average, 50 to 70 deaths, 5,000 hospital admissions, and 400 cases of encephalitis, according to immunize.ca. and before 1963, there were roughly 350,000 cases of measles reported every year.
After vaccines for measles were developed between the mid-1950s and early ’60s, the number of measles cases dropped substantially, down to 2,000 in 1995.
According to a recent immunization study conducted by the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, Manitoba’s publicly funded immunization programs are producing “consistent and stable immunization rates across most antigens and ages over time.”
But the same study found a notable decline in complete from birth immunization for children at age seven.
Two cases of measles reported in adult Manitobans does not make an epidemic. But measles was, at one point in recent history, nearly eliminated in this country. The fact that measles and other childhood diseases are back, and in greater numbers, is worrisome.
Vaccinations are a necessary safeguard for our children, based on sound scientific practice. We shouldn’t have to be scared into seeing their value by further unnecessary outbreaks.