You think this is worse than getting sick? Photographer: Mark Kegans/Getty Images
You think this is worse than getting sick? Photographer: Mark Kegans/Getty Images

Chalk up another demerit for the antivaccine movement: So far, 2014 is shaping up as the worst year for confirmed cases of the measles since it was declared eliminated as an endemic disease in 2000 in the U.S.

Most of the news and media coverage of the outbreak has focused on the fact that 69 percent of the 288 people sickened so far hadn't been vaccinated against measles.

This, of course, shouldn't be a surprise. People who don't get immunized are prone to getting sick. What's more noteworthy is that 10 percent of those who've fallen ill had been vaccinated and another 20 percent may have been but weren't sure. Given that almost all the cases originated with unvaccinated individuals, this means vaccine rejecters are spreading a preventable disease not only to their own families but to the rest of the population as well.

Those who were immunized got sick because no vaccine is 100 percent effective. A vaccine can eradicate a disease within a community if a high percentage of the population receives it: lacking sufficient hosts, the disease-causing agent dies off. This so-called herd immunity had defeated once-common childhood diseases including measles, mumps and whooping cough in the U.S. But all are making a comeback because of the hole that vaccine refusers have torn in the protective blanket.

The costs to society are multiple. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each measles infection costs local and state public-health authorities as much as $30,000 to manage, money that must be diverted from other priorities. Insurers bear additional costs and pass them on to all their customers, not just those who shun vaccines.

Although the recent U.S. outbreak has caused no deaths so far, measles can be fatal. A year ago, a boy in Germany died of a complication of the disease, which he contracted from an unvaccinated preteen in a pediatrician's waiting room. The boy was five months old when he was infected, too young to receive the measles shot.

A case like that in the U.S. might well attract a lawsuit for wrongful death. If the risks of sickening their kids and neighbors isn't enough to convert vaccine rejecters, perhaps that would.

To contact the author of this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.