This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invokes measles to make you feel guilty and frightened.
The agency announced on Thursday that there have been 175 measles cases in the U.S. in 2013, whereas only about 60 are seen in a typical year lately. Measles, the CDC press release says, “still threatens health security.”
Are they joking?, you might wonder. At a time when nearly 50 million Americans can’t get medical care because they don’t have insurance, and about 30 million will continue to lack health insurance even if the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented — at this point in American history, do the wonks at CDC really expect Americans to believe that an extra 100-odd measles cases represents a threat to the nation’s health?
No, they are not joking. CDC Director Frieden says:
“A measles outbreak anywhere is a risk everywhere.”
That sentence doesn’t exactly parse in standard English, but we get the point: be on guard, be on edge.
“With patterns of global travel and trade,”
“disease can spread nearly anywhere within 24 hours.”
This is not true, but truth isn’t at issue. Frieden is settling comfortably into his role as Minister of Propaganda for the unending War Against Risk, that existential danger to our well-being in which we are all supposed to be foot soldiers.
Here, the real story is that there’s no grave threat. There were over 100 measles cases in the U.S. in 2008 and over 200 in 2011. So it’s not at all clear that this year’s toll is out of the ordinary. And, of the 175 cases in 2013, most were acquired abroad. Measles transmission in the U.S. occurred in outbreaks among people who weren’t vaccinated for religious reasons, including 57 people in a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn who were infected by a traveler who acquired measles virus in England, and 22 in North Carolina infected by a traveler returning from India.
That these outbreaks occurred among people who were not vaccinated reveals little about vaccination campaigns in the U.S. — religious exemptions have long been recognized for people who do not want their children to undergo immunization. And they have not been severe: a pregnant woman infected with measles in the Brooklyn outbreak miscarried, but there is no way to know whether measles was the cause. One adult was hospitalized with respiratory complications in the North Carolina outbreak.
It’s probably a good idea to be immunized against measles. Measles rarely causes severe illness, but not never. And there is plenty of measles in the world, although it is extremely rare in the U.S. Immunization is like washing your kitchen counter tops.
But there’s no reason to sign up for Dr. Frieden’s army. Measles doesn’t threaten our health security (when it comes to threats to Americans’ health security, nothing comes close to Congressional Republicans!). We do not need to report our neighbors to the authorities if they aren’t getting their kids immunized. And we really don’t need any more inspections at airports. Our way of life is not under siege.