Jun 17, 2019 | Updated: 11:54 AM EDT

Pathologist Warns Measles Outbreak Threatens Herd Immunity

May 07, 2015 02:21 PM EDT

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We mammals have many social and emotional needs that are filled by being part of the herd. Just as important to our survival, however, is the benefit of herd immunity provided to us when our herd is vaccinated.

Gary W. Procop, MD, a fellow of the College of American Pathologists (FCAP), wants the public to better understand the benefits of herd immunity-and to realize that they will be lost if too many people refuse to vaccinate. Herd immunity itself is not a foolproof basis for decisions about vaccination. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) herd or community immunity is:

"... a situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination and/or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely. Even individuals not vaccinated (such as newborns and those with chronic illnesses) are offered some protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread within the community."

Dr. Procop is a professor of virology with a subspecialty in microbiology. He is the medical director of the Cleveland Clinic Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Institute. He also functions as the clinic's director of the mycology and parasitology laboratories and the medical director for enterprise test utilization. Finally, he chairs the Microbiology Resource Committee of the College of American Pathologists.

"We see pockets of unvaccinated individuals, usually children, who are then susceptible to infection. Once an infection gets into that group, it's like a spark in tinder," Procop says. "The real danger is that newborn babies or people with compromised immune systems who cannot generate a good antibody response to fight off the disease would suffer because of the decisions of the group who chooses not to get vaccinated."

This highlights the faulty reasoning of many people who believe that herd immunity requires some exact number of people to vaccinate; the rationale that follows is that on average enough people vaccinate to protect those who choose not to. However, as Dr. Procop points out, many times pockets of people who refuse to vaccinate form.

In other words, our population is not random. Therefore, Dr. Procop sees the refusal of many parents to vaccinate their children as a significant risk.

"In many instances Americans will listen to television personalities rather than scientific opinion. As medical professionals we have to be vigilant, diagnose accurately and collaborate with our public health colleagues."

Procop compares recent fervor over the Ebola virus to the apparent indifference of many-reflected in the refusal to vaccinate-towards measles. Dr. Procop thinks the public and the media has misplaced its attention by subjecting Ebola to this level of scrutiny.

"The real risk of Ebola was extremely low. The risk of measles in the populations that are not vaccinated is much greater than the risk of ever getting Ebola."

The bottom line? Dr. Procop states that to ensure that everyone is protected from measles, people must follow the current guidelines for vaccinations. "If you are vaccinated, you will either not get the disease, or if you do get the disease, it won't be very serious," says Dr. Procop.

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