Years later, vaccine scare leaves its mark on Welsh town

Public health officials say outbreak in southwest Wales has infected more than 1,200

The Wall Street Journal recently examined the impact of the vaccine scare on southwest Wales, where a precipitous drop in childhood immunization rates at the end of the 1990s may have caused a measles outbreak that has infected more than 1,200 people since November 2012.

How the vaccine scare may have affected southwest Wales

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a study in The Lancet that claimed to identify a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and the onset of autism.

Wakefield's theory—widely discredited and retracted by The Lancet in 2010—is believed to have encouraged many parents to refuse vaccination. A 2008 study in Pediatrics found that 2.1% of U.S. children who receive other recommended vaccines in 2000 did not get the MMR vaccine, up from 0.77% in 1995.

The theory had an outsized impact in southwest Wales, where the South Wales Evening Post published stories about families in the area who believed their child's autism had been caused by vaccinations and about a coalition of mothers who demanded an investigation into potentially faulty vaccinations.

Welsh health experts say that vaccination rates fell by 14% in the newspaper's distribution area in 1998, compared to a 2.4% decline across the rest of Wales.

A decade later, a measles outbreak sweeps the area

The impact of refusing vaccinations can take years to materialize, experts told the Journal, and doctors in Wales reported a surge in measles cases beginning last year.
  • From 1998 to 2008, doctors in Wales saw between 104 and 223 cases of measles per year.
  • Between November 2012 and early July 2013, doctors saw 1,219 people who were infected with measles. 

The recent outbreak has affected local 10- to 18-year-olds especially hard, about 10% have been hospitalized with severe dehydration and pneumonia, according to local health official Sara Hayes. One man died of measles-related pneumonia.

Health experts weigh in on the outbreak

Measles outbreaks are a "canary in the coal mine," says James Goodson, CDC's lead measles expert. He notes that members of a community who refuse vaccines often spurn others to do so as well, creating an area that will be vulnerable to outbreaks for other diseases that are slower to propagate, such as diphtheria and whooping cough.

According to the Journal, Wakefield rejects the idea that his study contributed to measles outbreaks because he only warned parents against the MMR vaccine, not a measles-only vaccine. He argues that the government's decision not to offer a measles-only vaccine "lays the blame fairly on their shoulders."

Measles has been among the world's most preventable diseases since effective inoculations were introduced in the 1960s, according to the Journal. Measles-related child deaths worldwide fell by 71% from 2000 to 2011, according to the Measles & Rubella Initiative. Moreover, the United Kingdom and the United States classified measles as "eliminated" in 2002.

Health officials say that cases of measles—which is highly contagious—are up nearly 50% this year in the United States.

According to the Journal, Wakefield maintains a group of ardent supporters in the United States. One of those supporters is actress Jenny McCarthy, who was recently named as a co-host on ABC's "The View"—a move that has alarmed many public health experts (Whalen/McKay, Journal, 7/19; McKay, Journal, 7/19).

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