Although measles has largely been eradicated in the U.S. over the past decade, the number of American patients sickened by the respiratory disease rose threefold in 2013 — a spike that health experts say underscores the continued need for comprehensive vaccination programs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that, so far this year, the agency has received reports of 175 cases of measles — 115 more than the annual average. As the disease has been eliminated for years, officials believe that the resurgence can be attributed to patients infected abroad. "A measles outbreak anywhere is a risk everywhere," CDC Director Tom Frieden said of the apparent influx. "The steady arrival of measles in the United States is a constant reminder that deadly diseases are testing our health security every day."

The agency’s epidemiological analysis of the spike implicates two individuals that may have carried the pathogen from London and India. The original patients, who were both unvaccinated, would go on to infect 58 people in Brooklyn and 23 people in North Carolina. Some experts argue that this disease model exemplifies the dangers of anti-vaccination campaigns like the one currently run by Jenny McCarthy.

“The greatest threat to the U.S. vaccination program may now come from parents' hesitancy to vaccinate their children," Mark Grabowsky of the U.N.'s malaria envoy wrote in an editorial published in JAMA Pediatrics. "Although this so-called vaccine hesitancy has not become as widespread in the United States as it appears to have become in Europe, it is increasing.”

Why Are People Resisting Vaccines?

Several political and medical events are thought to underpin the public aversion to the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccination. In Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries, the fear can be traced back to a 2011 CIA intelligence gambit that used phony vaccine protocols to gather DNA evidence of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. The ruse, which was unsuccessful in gathering such evidence, has since been decried by scientific publications and news outlets as a shockingly irresponsible intrusion into the delicate relationship between doctor and patient.

In Europe and the U.S., the perceived controversy originates in a 1998 study published in the medical journal Lancet by former surgeon and researcher Andrew Wakefield. The paper purported to identify a link between the administration of MMR vaccines and the incidence of autism. After a series of investigation spearheaded by the British journalist Brian Deer, it was revealed that the study’s results foundered on flawed data, and that Wakefield stood to profit financially from the publication. Following the journal’s retraction of the paper, the UK General Medical Council (GMC) struck Wakefield from the nation’s medical register, arguing that he had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly.”

Towards a Sensible Approach to Vaccines and Public Health

Although autism rates have risen since the introduction of MMR vaccines, they have continued to rise in the face of public vaccine resistance. In medical circles, this surge is generally attributed to increasingly inclusive diagnostic protocols rather than a global conspiracy to inflate autism rates. Judging by epidemiological data, the only clear public health outcome of Wakefield’s study is a friendlier environment for the type of viral pathogens MMR vaccines were painstakingly engineered to control.  

Today, the CDC recommends that all children receive the vaccine. To learn more about the vaccine, as well as the infectious diseases it inoculates against, visit the CDC’s or the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) online databases.