A pediatrician explains why it’s only a matter of time before we have another outbreak of a disease we once overcame

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A child receives a measles vaccine.
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Abid Katib/Getty Images

A virus that we’ve had a vaccine for since 1963 is at risk of making a major comeback in the US.

The reason, as Dr. Peter Hotez, a pediatrician and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece, has to do with the rise of the anti-vaccination movement, particularly through US politics.

The movement perpetuates the discredited idea that a vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) could be linked to autism. The study that gave grounds to this idea has since been retracted, and on the whole, the link between autism and vaccines has been solidly disproved.

Even so, President Donald Trump has given the movement credibility in debates and tweets in the years before his presidency, and he picked vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy to be in charge of a panel to review vaccine safety.

The uncertainty of what Trump might do has Hotez, a scientist and father of a daughter with autism, concerned.

“As a scientist leading global efforts to develop vaccines for neglected poverty-related diseases like schistosomiasis and Chagas’ disease, and as the dad of an adult daughter with autism and other disabilities, I’m worried that our nation’s health will soon be threatened because we have not stood up to the pseudoscience and fake conspiracy claims of this movement,” Hotez wrote.

That could mean outbreaks in states where children have not been vaccinated for measles. Texas, for example, has 45,000 children exempt from getting the vaccine, leaving some public schools approaching the threshold where a measles outbreak could be expected.

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The measles virus
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Centers for Disease Control

Measles is a vaccine-preventable disease that’s incredibly contagious and often deadly. Its symptoms usually include high fever, a cough, red, watery eyes, running nose, and after a few days, a rash. It can also lead to more serious complications including pneumonia and blindness. Before the vaccine was invented, roughly 3 to 4 million people were infected, leading to an estimated 400-500 deaths, according to the CDC.

Measles has been eliminated in the US since 2000, even though cases have popped up since, notably in California, where there was an outbreak in early 2015. In 2015, there were 189 cases of measles total, and in 2016, there were 70. The majority of people who get infected haven’t received the vaccine.

If anti-vaccination ideas gain ground in US politics, it could have an impact on public health agencies responsible for preventing infectious diseases.

“I fear that such myths will be used to justify new rounds of hearings or unwarranted investigations of federal agencies, including the CDC,” Hotez wrote. “This would only distract attention from these agencies’ crucial work, and the real needs of families with children on the autism spectrum, such as mental health services, work-entry programs for adults and support for the research being done by the National Institutes of Health.”