A problem public health officials face is that many communicable diseases aren’t lethal or even dangerous to most people (Ebola and HIV are the obvious exceptions). As a result, we tend to underestimate how dangerous many infectious diseases are. Tara Smith on measles (boldface mine):
Before the vaccine, the United States saw approximately 4 million cases of measles each year and 400 to 500 deaths. These are the stats that vaccine-deniers tend to emphasize—a relatively low number of deaths compared with the number of infections. However, those statistics alone leave out a big part of measles infections. Prevaccine, almost 48,000 people were also hospitalized each year because of measles and measles complications. One in 20 of those infected developed pneumonia. More rarely but more seriously, each year 1,000 became chronically disabled due to measles encephalitis.
Measles is not a benign disease.
However, in the modern era–which according to anti-vaxxers is healthier–measles seems to have taken a turn for the worse (boldface mine):
What many forget is that we had a massive outbreak of measles in the United States from 1989–1991. While our 644 cases in 2014 seems high compared with recent years, 25 years ago measles incidence spiked to 18,000 cases per year, with a total of more than 55,000 infections before the outbreak began to dwindle. It was the largest measles outbreak in this country since the 1970s…
Despite our advances and our modernity and our status as a developed country, we still saw 123 measles deaths during this epidemic—here, in the United States, where we get plenty of Vitamin A. There were also 11,000 hospitalizations—fully one-fifth of people infected with measles became sick enough to be hospitalized.
That’s one half percent who died, and one-fifth who had to hospitalized (I haven’t found the incidence of long-term complications, but it’s typically on par with deaths, give or take). If twenty people get measles, the odds of death or long-term consequences are minimal. But get that number up to tens of thousands, and now we would have lots of dead people.
The tragedy is that, if our current outbreak spirals out of control, it would have been completely avoidable. Unlike the 1989-1991 outbreak, we–or at least the not-a-fucking-moron part of us–now understand the importance of vaccinating very young children early. Yet too many people still delay or avoid the MMR vaccine.
There are days when I don’t even know why I do what I do for a living when people aren’t even going to do simple things that save lives.