It’s a horrible story made all the more tragic by the fact that we know how to prevent measles. We’ve known for decades. And yet people in Europe are dying year after year – not for want of access to vaccines or health professionals or information.
The latest victim was a toddler during last measles epidemic in the Netherlands in1999/2000. That outbreak led to more than 3,000 people being hospitalised, of which three died.
But even then, at the height of that outbreak 14 years ago, vaccination rates in some parts of the Netherlands remained far below the recommended 95% required to achieve herd immunity. According to Dutch health authorities, the 17-year-old girl who died last week had not been vaccinated.
Now, public health officials are offering vaccines to children who have missed out on the MMR vaccine (which offers protection against measles, mumps and rubella). The vaccine is safe and effective – but 100% useless if it stays in the bottle.
More misery to come
The current epidemic in the so-called Bible Belt has seen 121 people hospitalised, including 61 with pneumonia and one with brain inflammation. The region has a higher-than-average level of people who opt out of recommended vaccination schedules for religious reasons.
With more than 2,000 people infected, it will spread. Not just in areas where vaccination rates are very low but in neighbouring regions too. Probably to neighbouring countries, and perhaps further afield.
This week clinics in Alberta, Canada, are stepping up immunisation campaigns after confirming several new cases in the region.
The Canadian cases have been traced back to a teenager who had recently returned from a trip to The Netherlands. He had been to school and hockey practice before realising he was infected so health officials say they are expecting more cases.
Personally, the death of a 17-year-old girl leaves me somewhere between anger, frustration and despair. I look at my own two kids – one of whom has had the MMR, the other is still too young – and worry about the diseases spreading to our doorstep.
If previous outbreaks and previous deaths were not a harsh enough reminder that measles kills, what will it take? Will this death make any difference? Is there a magic number of young people who have to die from a preventable disease before parents, communities and community leaders take a hard look at the decisions they make?
How can parents who would not drive down the road without putting on their child’s seatbelt tolerate the kind of risk posed by a serious measles outbreak?
How can schools that don’t let children run in the playground be laissez-faire about potentially deadly infectious diseases?
And in the case of the Netherlands, how can religious leaders promote dangerous interpretations of ancient texts when it endangers their own flock?
We have seen how Muslim leaders joined the fight against polio in Pakistan and India. Maybe it is now time for religious leaders in Holland to tell their followers to protect themselves and their children by vaccinating.
Do something, please. Someone’s daughter died last week. It could be someone else’s next month.
This article represents the personal views of the author