Paging Dr. Frischer: Measles

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Everybody’s talking about the measles outbreak. Why do we care so much?

When I was a child, measles was considered a mild disease that kept kids out of school for a week or two. Today, I know better. Measles is an acute viral illness with fevers rising to as high as 105 degrees, malaise, cough, runny nose, conjunctivitis, and a unique rash. Those with measles are contagious from four days prior to four days after the rash appears. Measles can come with serious complications, even for otherwise healthy children and adults, including:

  • ·One out of every 1,000 measles cases will develop acute encephalitis, which often results in permanent brain damage.

  • ·One or two out of every 1,000 children who become infected with measles will die from respiratory and neurologic complications.

  • ·Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) is a rare, but fatal degenerative disease of the central nervous system.

Measles is highly contagious, and extremely easy to spread. Since 1912, healthcare providers and labs in the United States have been required to report all measles cases. In 1963, a measles vaccine became available, and an improved version was released in 1968. Since 1989, the current, highly effective, two-dose vaccination has been administered.

Prior to the vaccine, nearly all children got measles by the time they were 15 years old. This resulted in three to four million people infected each year, leading to roughly 500 deaths, 48,000 hospitalizations, and some 3,000 cases of encephalitis. Due to a highly effective vaccination program in the U.S. as well as in Canada and Mexico, measles was effectively eliminated from North America by the year 2000.

Many of us were vaccinated decades ago. Are we immune? Those of us born before 1963 may not have received any measles vaccine at all, but it’s generally safe to assume that most of us either had the disease or were exposed and are immune.

The current MMR vaccine actually protects against three diseases: measles, mumps, and rubella. It is a two-dose live attenuated (weakened) virus vaccine. The first dose is to be given at 12 to 15 months, and the second dose at four to six years. Its potential side effects are hugely outweighed by the benefits of preventing the diseases.

It’s extremely important to note that numerous studies have searched for and failed to find a connection between the measles vaccine and autism. The only study linking the MMR vaccine to autism is over 20 years old, and has been proven to be not only bad science, but outright fraud. Of the 11 authors involved in the study (which looked at only 12 patients), 10 of the co-authors have openly admitted that the data was falsified.

On the other hand, a recent study from Denmark followed 657,461 children born to Danish-born mothers between 1999 and 2010. 6,517 of these children were diagnosed with autism, showing that there was no increased risk of developing autism in the vaccinated group. This was a very large and significant study, and joins numerous other studies that have reached the same conclusion.

Unfortunately, measles is still common in a number of developing countries, particularly in Africa and Asia. Worldwide, an estimated seven million people were affected by measles in 2017, which is a 30% increase from the previous year. Unvaccinated U.S. residents are susceptible while traveling abroad, and may bring the disease home and spread it to others, particularly to those who are unvaccinated.

We must once again eradicate measles. An effective and safe vaccine exists for us and for our children. If you aren’t sure whether you are immune to measles, ask your doctor for a simple blood test to measure your measles antibody level. If you do not have protection, I urge you to get vaccinated.