You probably have never heard as much about measles as you have in the past several months. If you were born after 1968, you didn’t hear much about it because there were so few cases in the US. If you were born in the 1950s, you probably had measles, chicken pox, mumps and maybe even German measles (rubella). Obviously, if you had any or all these illnesses and are reading this, you lived to tell the story. Perhaps the worst that happened to you is that you have a few leftover scars from the itchy, small blister-like eruptions that covered your skin if you had chicken pox. You might remember the pink Calamine lotion daubed all over you to take away the itch – the look of it was comical.
So, why is everyone making such a big deal over the recent resurgence of measles in the US? Because of vaccines, most of us have never seen what measles looks like or heard about any of the devastating effects it can have. According to the CDC, “Some people may suffer from severe complications, such as pneumonia (infection of the lungs) and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). They may need to be hospitalized and could die.”
About 1 out of 4 people who get measles will be hospitalized. As many as 1 of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children. About 1 child out of every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) that can lead to convulsions and leave the child deaf or with an intellectual disability. Nearly 1 or 2 of every 1,000 children who become infected with measles will die from respiratory and neurologic complications. Measles may cause pregnant women who have not had the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine to give birth prematurely or have a baby with a low birth weight. People with immune system problems are far more susceptible to infection. 1 to 3 out of 1,000 people with measles will die, even with the best care.
Measles is still common in many parts of the world. Each year around the world, an estimated 10 million people get measles, and about 110,000 of them die from it. To many, this just doesn’t seem worthy of so much attention and worry. However, measles is highly contagious from person to person. If we went back to a time when there was no vaccine available (before 1968), we would see an estimated 3 to 4 million cases in the United States each year, 400 to 500 people would die, 48,000 would need to be hospitalized and 1,000 would suffer encephalitis from measles.
What about autism? It’s difficult to know if autism is on the rise or not, because in some age groups the number of cases is growing, while in others, it is declining. There is a very good possibility that rather than more actual cases, autism is simply more in the awareness of the public and is now being diagnosed more than previously. And if it is increasing, it’s not because of the MMR vaccine, as so many studies have shown. One thing we are sure of, though, is that this is the greatest number of cases of measles since 1992 and since measles was declared eliminated back in 2000.
Why are some people afraid of vaccines? The controversy over vaccines began back in 1998 when Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the very highly regarded British medical journal, The Lancet, about autism. He had studied 12 children with developmental disorders – 8 of them had received the MMR vaccine. Twelve years later, The Lancet retracted the article saying that the study was unethical and biased (parents of children in the study told the author they thought it was the MMR vaccine causing the developmental delay but the cause and effect was not verified). By then it was too late. There were already groups forming headed by famous actors and others who blamed the growing numbers of autistic children on the MMR vaccine. Parents stopped vaccinating their children and more children are now becoming infected with measles (there have been mumps outbreaks, as well). In March of 2019, pregnant women were advised not to visit Japan because of a rubella outbreak. Rubella (German Measles) can cause severe birth defects, miscarriages and stillbirths.
So, let’s think about this. Twelve children in a study – too few participants about which to make a generalization like, “vaccines cause autism.” You wouldn’t take a medicine that had only been tested on twelve people or believe that an opinion poll demonstrated how most people feel about an issue if only twelve people were asked to participate, right? It is important to question what we read about how different things in our environment affect our health – air and noise pollution, what’s in our food, etc. But there have been so many well-done studies now, one of which looked at 1.2 million children, and all have concluded that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
There is enough evidence that vaccinations, which have been around for hundreds of years in some form, work. Smallpox, a deadly infection, has been considered eradicated since 1980. The incidence of many communicable diseases is significantly lower because of mass vaccination programs. Rabies is no longer a death sentence because of the vaccine that prevents it. Are there possible complications with vaccines? Yes, but the benefit of vaccines far outweighs the risks – and autism is not one of the risks.
When parents don’t vaccinate their children, the public’s health is at risk, not just that child or family. As citizens of the world, we need to be active in fostering the greater good for everyone. So, please, encourage your loved ones to vaccinate now if they haven’t already. We’ll all be better off for it.