Editor's Note: This security-focused assessment is one of many such analyses found at Stratfor Threat Lens, a unique protective intelligence product designed with corporate security leaders in mind. Threat Lens enables industry professionals and organizations to anticipate, identify, measure and mitigate emerging threats to people, assets and intellectual property the world over. Threat Lens is the only unified solution that analyzes and forecasts security risk from a holistic perspective, bringing all the most relevant global insights into a single, interactive threat dashboard.
Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles, mumps and whooping cough, have again become an issue in Western and developed countries. Developing or conflict-ridden countries have far more cases of malaria and other diseases, but infection rates in the United States and Europe are on the rise. The number of cases is lower than in developing countries, but outbreaks in economically advanced countries can create sudden and sharp disruptions.
Infection rates of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States and Europe are on the rise. The disorder caused by disease outbreaks and the associated political unrest is likely to continue, given that the factors driving these problems are either persistent or worsening. One key factor driving these outbreaks is a growing "anti-vaxxer" movement.
Measles has garnered a large portion of the media coverage, because instances of the disease in Europe have more than doubled from 2017 to 2018, resulting in about 60,000 cases. The World Health Organization (WHO) said the number of cases this year — 34,300 in the first two months — is set to far outpace the count for 2018. A WHO emergency director at a regional office in Europe described the rise as an "unprecedented upsurge." In Israel, authorities recorded 3,590 cases of measles between March 2018 and February 2019, and health officials from the United Arab Emirates to Japan have expressed concern about the growing outbreaks.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the number of measles cases in the first five months of 2019 was more than double the number for all of 2018. Health officials in New York described the outbreak since October 2018 as the worst in two decades. In Los Angeles County, health officials declared a measles outbreak in April 2019. In 2016, the measles infection rate stood at 0.03 per 100,000 people, but it has risen to 0.26 cases per 100,000 so far in 2019. That rate is low when compared with other diseases in the United States — sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis and hepatitis C — but measles has one of the fastest-growing rates of infection among contagious diseases. And while measles may grab most of the headlines, it isn't the only disease of concern. Mumps and whooping cough are also problems.
The 'Anti-Vaxxer' Movement
One key factor driving these outbreaks is a growing "anti-vaxxer" movement, which has encouraged an increasing number of people to avoid immunizations. Simply put, the more unvaccinated people there are, the more likely disease outbreaks are to occur. Influential political parties and public figures in the United States and Europe have expressed skepticism over the effectiveness and safety of vaccines and the rights of the government to regulate personal health decisions. These ideas have spread through social media and other communications channels, and ill-informed campaigns frequently cite scientific studies that have been soundly debunked.
Still, the reasons for avoiding vaccinations can vary from personal beliefs to misinformed ideas on health effects. Some communities don't immunize their children for religious reasons, and others believe vaccines cause autism or other severe health problems, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
The growing number of unvaccinated people combined with the increased interconnectivity among countries means outbreaks can spread quickly and affect the unvaccinated. The simplest countermeasures to cut the risk are immunizations.
Subversive Russian social media campaigns have also contributed to the growth of the "anti-vaxxer" movement in recent years. The vaccine controversy is one of many divisive issues that the Kremlin has been exploiting to sow dissension in Western countries, particularly during election seasons. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that Russian troll farms had been spreading such disinformation. Numerous politicians and public health officials have pointed out Moscow's efforts.
The growing number of unvaccinated people combined with the increased interconnectivity among countries means outbreaks can spread quickly and affect the unvaccinated. The simplest countermeasures to cut the risk are immunizations. Simply put, vaccinations work. And disease outbreaks and the political controversy around vaccines can create numerous problems and lead to:
- Warnings from companies, schools and other institutions, such as airports.
- Reductions in business operations after employees or their children are infected.
- Travel advisories and limits on travel to affected countries, possibly hampering business operations.
- Disruptive protests over outbreaks and vaccines, and occasionally attacks on medical facilities or personnel.
- Turmoil around election season, when political tensions and propaganda are often at their highest.
Looking ahead, the disorder caused by disease outbreaks and the associated political unrest is likely to continue, given that the factors driving these problems are either persistent or worsening. The anti-vaccine movement is growing more cohesive, gaining more funding and becoming more adept at spreading its message. Likewise, Russian subversive social media activity continues to adapt and respond to countermeasures by Western governments and social media companies, such as Twitter and Facebook. Vaccinations and disease outbreaks will be politically salient issues in the 2020 U.S. elections, as well as in elections in various European countries in 2019 and 2020. Even absent the spark of elections, the issue will remain politically divisive.