Germany Is Showing the U.S. the Right Way to Handle Disease Epidemics


The measles epidemic that began at Disneyland has now spread to 121 people in 17 states, sparking a fierce and largely unneeded political debate over the perceived safety of vaccines. Across the Atlantic Ocean, far from the political jousting in the U.S., there's been another major outbreak of measles — and Germany is showing the United States how to respond.

The Robert Koch Institute told German newspaper Deutsche Welle that 375 cases of measles have been confirmed in the past four months. With 254 new cases in January alone, the Washington Post calculates the outbreak in Germany to be 10 times worse than America's, based on relative population size.

Unlike the U.S., where people are panicking and politicians like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have scrambled to capitalize on anti-vaccine paranoia, the response in Germany has been relatively muted. As the Washington Post's Rick Noack writes, Germany's sudden measles outbreak "has neither caused a debate about the alleged risks of vaccines nor has the outbreak been featured on front pages."

So why is Germany so good at dealing with outbreaks while the U.S. flounders in paranoia? The answer is relatively simple: In Germany, a debate over vaccines is virtually unthinkable.

Thomas Kienzle/AP

Germany has learned from experience. In 2001, a measles epidemic infected about 6,037 people, by the World Health Organization's estimate. Thanks to high education rates and a swift response from German public health officials, the country has learned and been able to contain the outbreak to the state of Brandenburg surrounding the capital in Berlin.

This doesn't mean that the Germans are disease-proof. While Germany currently boasts a childhood vaccination of 97%, the Washington Post reports that "one-third of all vaccinated German children either lack a sufficient immunization (which usually requires a second dose), or are vaccinated too late."

On top of that, about half of the people diagnosed with measles in Germany are adults. Many of them appear to be asylum seekers from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, where the ravaging Yugoslav Wars of 1991-2001 seriously offset vaccination programs. 

Finally (and most notably), Germany lacks an anti-vaccination movement with the same prominent role in public debate that America's does, meaning that there hasn't been as great a need to debunk the ridiculous myths that surround the MMR vaccine and others. Without all that Jenny McCarthy-induced paranoia, German public health officials have had more freedom to deal with measles as a public health issue rather than a politicized debate.

Markus Schreiber/AP

Why you should care: Despite the relative calm in Germany, experts say the country's outbreak stresses the need for continued vigilance in vaccination programs. According to the Measles & Rubella Initiative, measles is so contagious that 90% of unvaccinated persons coming into contact with an infected person will catch the disease. Robert Koch Institute director Anette Siedler told German media that "the outbreak in Berlin is a sobering setback. In general, Germany's immunization rate is too low."

While the U.S. can and should follow Germany's example in calmly dealing with infectious diseases, the lesson for both countries is the same: Missing vaccinations puts people and their children at unnecessary risk. There's still zero evidence that vaccinations cause autism or any other serious health complications, and Germany's example shows that industrialized countries everywhere remain at risk, even without the presence of those who would seek to exploit fear and paranoia for political ends.