Why the WHO celebration on measles could backfire on public health

Hold the champagne

Hold the champagne, please.

Jubilant headlines that borrow framing from a World Health Organization (WHO) announcement are declaring the Americas a “measles-free” zone.

NBC: Measles Has Been Eliminated in the Americas, WHO Says

Newsweek: Measles eradicated from the Americas 

The Atlantic: The Measles-Free Americas

TIME: The Americas Are Now Officially Free of Measles

“We celebrate this historic day in which the scourge has been eliminated,” said Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), quoted in the NBC piece and many others.

The scourge of measles is still with us and media messages should reflect that reality

This reminds me of why you shouldn’t start your end zone dance when you’re still on the 10-yard line.

Many of these stories about the announcement go on to clarify that no, the Americas aren’t in fact “measles-free” because new cases can and are brought in from abroad on a regular basis, which can and does lead to new outbreaks — including those at Disneyland in 2015 and in Arizona this year.

But if that’s the case, why are headlines blaring a message about measles elimination that can easily be misinterpreted by the public?

Misleading messages can be exploited by the anti-vaccination movement

It’s amazing that we have a vaccine for this highly contagious virus. According to the CDC:

  • As many as one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children.
  • About one child out of every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) that can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or with intellectual disability.
  • For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it.

Recent outbreaks in the U.S. originating from abroad have occurred in communities with low vaccination rates. And that’s the main reason why Arthur Caplan, PhD, Director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University, thinks the recent news coverage was generally “very disappointing.”

“Antivaxxers are constantly looking for reasons not to vaccinate and to convince others not to do so,” he told me. “Telling them in screaming headlines that measles is eradicated, the equivalent of yelling that like smallpox, measles is gone from this country, is confusing, not true and dangerous. This story demands nuance — native strains seem to be eradicated. Strains outside the USA are still a threat since they can and are brought into the country both by visitors and by American tourists, foreign aid workers and biz travelers who bring measles back.”

Some stories did a better job of covering a complicated issue

A few of the headlines that I saw — and there may have been others that I didn’t see — did reflect the nuance that Caplan was looking for to varying degrees:

Forbes: Important Difference: Measles Elimination In Americas Does Not Mean Eradication Or Extinction

LiveScience: Measles Eliminated from the Americas: Here’s Why There Will Still be Cases


But it wasn’t enough, in my opinion, to counter the misleading impression that the majority of headlines will surely leave with readers.

Words matter, especially in headlines.

It’s not good enough to clarify a confusing headline in the ninth paragraph of the body text, as at least one story about the announcement did.

The damage is already done.

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Comments (2)

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John Galbraith Simmons

October 3, 2016 at 7:14 am

Quite right to point to the problematic in this old aspiration recycled as news. Health journalists should learn to consider the eradication peg a durable PR myth to be avoided.

Tom Prvulovic

October 4, 2016 at 11:23 am

WHO did it again: they have celebrated Liberia Ebola free only to face more cases in all 3 West Africsn countries. Both late Dr. Jonathan Mann ( discoverer of Ebola. and my boss) and Dr. Peter Piott (co discoverer of Ebola and my boss) said that you can. Celebrate only when you find the last case in the most remote village and resolve it. All of us who had experience with Ebola agree. WHO also stated before Rio that we do not have to worry about Zika at all and now we have Zika in Africa and Asia. Seems that they like celebrating rather than use opinion of real experts working with them but not daring to contradict their Directors. I am sorry to say, but we will have measles particularly in view of unfortunate ‘ movement’ by some careless parents to avoid vaccinating their kids.