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Map of preventable disease outbreaks shows the influence of anti-vaccination movements

Map of preventable disease outbreaks shows the influence of anti-vaccination movements

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The Council of Foreign Relations Global Health Program started tracking news reports about vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks late in 2008. It has now produced an interactive map that shows that data, tracking the number of recorded cases of diseases such as measles, mumps, and whooping cough across the world between 2008 and 2014. The results show a surprising number of vaccine-preventable diseases in developed countries with access to vaccinations.

The majority of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks during this time took place in less economically developed regions of the world. Many countries in west Africa were struck by repeat measles and cholera epidemics, while Zimbabwe suffered from more than 3,000 cases of typhoid. Measles was by far the most prevalent of the vaccine-preventable diseases during this four-year period: more than 20,000 cases of measles were reported in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines from 2008 to the present day. The LA Times' Michael Hiltzik puts the number of measles cases in the "underdeveloped world" down to the unavailability of the MMR — measles, mumps, and rubella — vaccine.

The map also shows a rise in preventable diseases in the US, Europe, and Australasia

But the Council of Foreign Relations' map also shows a rise in preventable diseases in the world's economic powerhouses, where the standard of living is higher, and the access to vaccines near-ubiquitous. During the period represented by the map's data, the US was home to thousands of cases of pertussis. Pertussis, also called whooping cough, went largely unreported in the underdeveloped world: 58 cases were noted in Sudan in 2013, while north Afghanistan suffered 350 cases in a cluster outbreak in 2012.

In contrast, the state of Wisconsin alone saw more than 7,000 cases of the disease between 2011 and 2013. In California, the number was over 10,000. At least 10 babies died in the state from the disease in 2010. In 2009, there were no news reports of vaccine-preventable diseases in the state of Washington. In 2012, the state suffered five distinct outbreaks of whooping cough, totaling 7,000 cases of a disease that was once close to eradication. Similar outbreaks have occurred in Australia and the UK — both countries with advanced vaccination programs. This discrepancy could be due to the map's data source: the Council of Foreign Relations relied on news reports to collate its information, and reliable reporting from the developing world is usually trickier to find than news from inside the US or UK. But the outbreaks also appear to have intrinsic links to the anti-vaccination movements present in these economically advanced countries.

The claims of anti-vaccine campaigners caused a decline in vaccination rates

In the UK, the MMR vaccine is available through the National Health Service. But the MMR vaccine was also the focus of an infamous study by Andrew Wakefield, who suggested that the vaccine had a link to the development of autism. Although the study was discredited, and Wakefield — who was reportedly planning to personally profit from a projected decline in MMR vaccinations — was struck off the British Medical Register, his baseless hypothesis pervaded public consciousness, and the country saw a decline in vaccination rates. More recently, a similar anti-vaccine standpoint has been taken by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy in the United States. McCarthy's claim, that vaccines contain "toxins," is less specific than Wakefield's false findings, but also contributed to the misinformation about immunization, leading to a rise in preventable diseases in the US and other countries, such as Australia.

The Council of Foreign Relations' map may be an imperfect study of preventable diseases worldwide, but it is packed with evidence — both empirical and anecdotal — that illnesses humanity worked out how to halt fifty years ago are again a threat in the west.