As of April 4, 465 cases of measles had been confirmed in 19 states. That’s the second-highest number of cases reported in the United States since the contagious virus was eliminated from the country in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But a Facebook post from that same day cast doubt on the seriousness of this measles outbreak compared with the risks of the vaccine that the CDC recommends be administered to all children to inoculate them against measles, mumps and rubella, commonly referred to as the MMR vaccine.
"Measles kills 11 people in 19 years (since 2000)," the post says. "MMR vaccine kills 445 infants in 1 year (since 2018). Why aren’t you afraid of vaccine?"
This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The post includes a link to a blog called "The Mom Street Journal." But the blog post — "Doctors disagree with charges against Dr. Bob Sears, assert vaccine safety is a concern" — is from 2016, two years before the earliest baseline date cited in the Facebook post. It also doesn’t mention measles.
We asked Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute For Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, about the Facebook post.
"It’s not true," he said.
First, let’s look at measles deaths.
Since 2017, approximately 110,000 people worldwide died from measles, according to the World Health Organization. Before the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, widespread epidemics happened every two to three years or so, and an estimated 2.6 million people died annually.
Because the Facebook post claims measles has killed 11 people since 2000, a fraction of the number of people who died from measles globally, we’ll focus our fact-check on the United States.
Benjamin Haynes, a spokesman for the CDC’s infectious disease media team, said three people have died from measles since 2000. Two people died in 2003, Haynes said, and one more died in 2015.
Next, let’s look at the Facebook post’s claim that the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine killed 445 infants in one year, "since 2018."
Haynes said the CDC doesn’t have precise data on deaths caused by the MMR vaccination.
"CDC and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) monitor reports of adverse events and deaths that occur after vaccination using several different systems including the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS)," Haynes said. "Since VAERS data cannot determine causality, we cannot use it to provide numbers of severe injuries or deaths caused by vaccination."
But, he added, "a large body of evidence supports the safety of vaccines, and multiple studies and scientific reviews have found no association between vaccination and deaths except in rare cases."
As we noted in a 2015 fact-check of a website that misused data to wrongly claim the measles vaccine had killed 108 people in the last decade, anyone can file a report with VAERS, including doctors, patients, family members and friends. And they can file it regardless of whether they’re certain a death or another event was caused by the vaccine.
Still, we wondered if 445 infants were reported dead in 2018 after they received the MMR vaccination.
We searched the VAERS database for the vaccine and deaths in 2018. The database returned three cases where the vaccine is MMR and the patient died on or after Jan. 1, 2018.
The first case details the death of a 14-month-old boy. He was found dead in bed a week after vaccination, according to a write-up of the report. The cause of death was unknown.
The second case details the death of a 1-year-old girl. The unknown reporter said the vaccine caused the girl to lose her speech and appetite and caused seizures. "Upon internal review," the database says," seizure was determined to be medically significant." The cause of death was unknown.
The third case details the death of a 1-year-old boy. The cause of death was related to his seizure disorder.
During a measles outbreak in 2014-15, unsubstantiated claims of deaths caused by the MMR vaccine started circulating online, according to a 2015 paper in the journal Vaccine titled, "Deaths following vaccination: What does the evidence show?"
The authors summarized epidemiologic data on deaths after vaccination, including instances where reasonable scientific evidence existed to support that vaccination caused or contributed to deaths. Their conclusion? Millions of vaccinations are given to children and adults in the United States every year and serious adverse reactions from vaccines are uncommon. "Deaths caused by vaccines are very rare," the paper says.
"A review of VAERS data reveals that many of the death reports for MMR vaccine involved children with serious pre-existing medical conditions or were likely unrelated to vaccination," the paper continues. "No concerning patterns have emerged that would suggest a causal relationship with the MMR vaccine and death."
We searched for news coverage of 445 infants dying from the MMR vaccine in a year. Such an event would draw media attention. But we couldn’t find any articles online, and when we searched the Nexis database for stories from Jan. 1, 2018 through April 11, 2019, about 445 deaths from measles vaccines, we couldn’t find anything to corroborate the Facebook post’s claim.
We did find an undated blog post on the website of the National Vaccine Information Center, a nonprofit that describes itself as "an independent clearinghouse for information on diseases and vaccine science" but that has been criticized as an anti-vaccination group that promotes alternatives to vaccines, like handwashing.
The blog post says that as of Nov. 30, 2018, there were 459 deaths related to measles vaccines reported to VAERS. That’s close to 445, so we recreated the search in the federal database. It’s true that 459 deaths were reported as of that date, but it includes deaths that were reported as early as 1989. Some more caveats: First, there weren’t 459 infant deaths reported. That number includes all ages. According to the database, 272 deaths were reported for children under the age of 3. Second, the search also includes deaths reported in connection with four other vaccines, not just MMR. And third, anyone can file a report with VAERS even if they’re not sure a death was caused by a vaccine.
The information in the Facebook post is wrong. We rate it Pants on Fire!
Correction: The measles vaccine was introduced in 1963. Previously, this story said it was introduced in 1993.