The current measles outbreak in the U.S. raises serious concerns -- not just from a domestic public health standpoint, but from a global one as well.
Younger generations of Americans today do not remember a time when measles, with its high fevers, spotty red rashes and potentially fatal complications, was a very real and scary threat. Before the measles vaccine became common in 1963, some 3 to 4 million people in the U.S. would contract the disease every year, and as many as 500 would die from it. By 2000, measles had been virtually eliminated in this country with the caveat that it could still be introduced by an infected visitor from abroad.
And now it's back. In 2014 there were 644 measles cases in the U.S. -- more than the previous five years combined -- and another 100 cases have been reported in January of this year alone.
If this can happen here, imagine how fragile the situation is in developing countries. UNICEF and its partners have made it their mission to provide vaccinations to the world's most vulnerable children, to protect them against measles as well as polio, tetanus and other diseases that we have long stopped worrying about here.
These efforts have been critical to quadrupling global immunization rates since 1980. Millions of lives have been saved as a result. Globally, polio cases have plummeted by 99 percent since 1988, meaning at least 10 million childhood disabilities have been prevented. Measles deaths have been reduced 75 percent since 2000. Neonatal tetanus has been eliminated in 35 countries since 1999.
The fact is, vaccines work -- they are stunningly effective, a safe form of prevention that is significantly more cost-efficient than treatment. In Ethiopia, it costs about a month's household income to treat one child with measles, but only about $1 to vaccinate that child. In the U.S., a single measles case can cost $100,000 or more to track and manage the outbreak response -- an amount that would be far better spent vaccinating kids.
But vaccines only work if we maintain our determination to provide their benefits to our children. When it comes to preventable disease, misinformation can be as deadly, if not more so than the disease itself, both here and abroad. For example, lack of trust in vaccine safety caused by false rumors have thwarted campaigns in Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.
Successful vaccination programs depend on long term effort, extensive partnerships and full community buy-in. As frightening as our measles outbreak may be, what's most frightening is to learn that in some schools, as many as 40 percent of parents are opting out of vaccinating their children, evidence that a critical consensus on the necessity of vaccination is at risk.
The most difficult thing I have ever experienced was to hold a mother's hand as her child died from a vaccine-preventable disease -- and tragically, her heartbreaking experience is far too common. Every year, globally, 1.5 million children still die because they were not immunized. If we are to save and protect the world's most vulnerable children, we need support and consensus here at home. Let's lead by example by putting children first.