Why Is Germany So Calm About Its Measles Outbreak?

A bigger flare-up of the contagious disease has a different cause—and has prompted a much more placid reaction.

If the Great American Measles Outbreak of 2015 were to have a watchword, it would probably be "selfish." As in, those "boneheaded," "irresponsible" parents whom experts are calling "incredibly selfish" for choosing not to get their children vaccinated for measles. ("Selfish" is even the title of a measles-themed 2009 episode of Law & Order: SVU.)

On Monday, Georgia became the most recent state to confirm a case of the disease, adding the Peach State to a list of (at least) 14 other states infected by the illness this year. What's different about this development, as WBS-TV Atlanta reported, is that "the infected infant arrived in Atlanta from outside of the U.S."

This case is rare not only because it bucks the American construction of the measles story, but also because it resembles the ongoing measles outbreak in Germany that, as The Washington Post reported, is "about 10 times worse than the one in the United States in January, relative to the total population."

While the Robert Koch Institute says Germany has notched nearly 400 measles cases since October, the outbreak has been linked in part to "asylum seekers from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia" rather than "reckless" parents on the West Coast.

Perhaps more importantly, the response to the outbreak in Germany has been considerably more muted. As Rick Noack pointed out, the measles surge "has neither caused a debate about the alleged risks of vaccines nor has the outbreak been featured on front pages."

There appear to be a number of reasons for the relative calm. The first is that Germany has had its recent share of serious outbreaks, all of which were eventually brought to heel. Following a 2001 outbreak, in which over 6,000 cases were reported in Germany, the World Health Organization later set a goal to eradicate the disease by 2010 as cases dwindled to the hundreds. (Germany's ongoing flare-up frustrates its plan of ending measles cases within the country by the end of 2015.)

Another reason is that Germany has a pretty steady vaccination rate of 95 percent (the American rate is about 91 percent). Moreover, half of the cases reported in Germany during the past few months are adults who may have fallen into an immunization gap that started in the 1970s. In the place of parents, as Deutsche Welle observes, some blame has fallen on visitors and migrants, who have increasingly become the target of campaigns by anti-immigration groups within the country.

Health officials maintain that vaccination should remain the agreed-upon response. The World Health Organization credited an immunization campaign for lowering the annual deaths from measles "to 122,000 [in 2012] from 562,000 in 2002."

But the numbers still fluctuate as world events shape them. In 2013, measles fatalities crept back up to 145,000⎯a rate of 16 deaths per hour globally. Last year, there were over 100,000 cases between China and the Philippines alone, the latter of which had its immunization program interrupted by a typhoon. Meanwhile, in the United States, there were 644 reported cases across 27 states—the most since 1994.