Measles has been in the news a lot the last couple of months, and rightly so, as it is one of the most contagious viruses known to humankind and worldwide cases are 300% higher this year than last year.
New scientific discoveries and the anti-vaccine movement are also driving a lot of discussion.
Measles has been with us since at least 800 A.D., but it wasn’t until 1963 that Drs. Enders and Peebles licensed a vaccine that would nearly eradicate it. There used to be between 400 and 500 deaths and nearly 50,000 hospitalizations due to measles each year in the United States. Until recently, outbreaks here were rare.
In other countries, however, the success has not been as marked. In countries with less access to vaccines and medical care, as well as poor nutrition, measles still takes the lives of children on a regular basis. More than 250 children die each day due to measles around the world, and many more experience complications such as encephalitis (brain swelling). Thousands of children died this year in Madagascar alone. Each instance is a terrible tragedy, especially since they are essentially all preventable.
The measles vaccine is one of the most effective ever created. While no vaccine is perfect, two doses of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella vaccine) will prevent measles in exposed people 97% of the time. That is an astounding success rate. However, lack of availability to vaccines in some countries coupled with vaccine hesitancy in wealthy nations is allowing measles to have a comeback. Measles is so contagious, that in order to protect a community, 95% of people need to be vaccinated. Thankfully, no one has died in the United States this year at the time of writing, but public health officials fear that our nearly 1,000 cases suggest that it is only a matter of time until someone does. Infants who do not have their vaccinations yet, and children and adults who cannot be vaccinated or aren’t well protected because of poor immune systems are at exceptionally high risk.
Let’s talk a little more specifically about Utah. In Utah County, for example, the number of school-aged children with two doses of measles vaccine is only about 85%. The overwhelming majority of the children who are not vaccinated are due to non-medical exemptions. That makes those who need medical exemptions at very high risk of being infected by an otherwise healthy child. Public health officials are warning that it is not a matter of if Utah is going to have a measles outbreak, it is become more a matter of when.
If you still think measles infection isn’t a big deal because death from measles is rare in the United States, be aware that it actually damages your child’s immune system for as much as three years. It does this by killing the immune cells in their body that have been trained to recognize and fight infections they were exposed to in the past. This makes children infected with measles susceptible to a host of other diseases. When a country starts vaccinating against measles, their death rates from other childhood infections consistently go down.
Now, all that being said, if you are against vaccination, or “spreading out” the vaccinations your child receives for non-medical reasons, you are likely doing so because you have serious concerns about your child’s health and well-being. Some children can be allergic to vaccines or have very rare complications due to an underlying condition.
You may have witnessed or heard stories of children who have developmental issues sometime after receiving a vaccination. You are a concerned parent. I hear you. Let’s talk about how to prevent and treat autism and other developmental issues. Let’s talk about how to be aware of any potential adverse effects like an allergic reaction in your child. In the meantime, know that the risk from highly contagious diseases like the measles is much higher than the risk of them having an adverse reaction to a vaccine, and that science is increasingly showing autism is the result of brain changes that start before vaccination. We are on the same team in trying to help children lead healthy and fulfilling lives. Vaccination is a key part of how we get there.