Measles: Everything you need to know

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I was recently asked to do a workshop for expectant parents and parents of young babies on the topic “To vaccinate or not to vaccinate, that is the question?”. I was grateful for the opportunity, as I feel that the only way to form opinions on matters such as this is to have open, honest discussions.

My approach for the workshop was simple: present the disease to my audience. As a paediatrician, I have personally treated every disease that we currently vaccinate against. I have witnessed the devastation of diseases and the joy of seeing a child survive an almost impossible situation. Once parents understand what they are up against, they can weigh the pros and cons of vaccinating.

In society today, we are fortunate enough to be spared the horrors of many of these diseases because we don’t often encounter sufferers. As a result, the diseases and their potential effects are softened, but this does not mean the diseases don’t exist.

The current measles crisis

A report* published by the World Health Organisation on 15 April 2019 states that the number of reported “measles cases rose by 300% in the first three months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018”.  The report continues with the current available statistics from 2017 stating that 110 000 deaths occurred as a result of the disease. These deaths are not limited to underprivileged nations.

Six measles outbreaks are currently ongoing in the United States, with 206 reported cases in January and February of this year alone. Life-long disability, brain damage and hearing loss are some of the scars that could remain for those who survive the disease.

*Provisional data based on monthly data reported to WHO (Geneva) as of April 2019

What is measles?

  • Measles is a viral infection that presents with a high fever, rash, conjunctivitis, severe cough, runny nose and muscle pain.
  • It is one of the most contagious infectious diseases. It has a transmission rate of 90% to susceptible individuals.
  • Patients with measles become immune supressed, making them highly susceptible to bacterial infections.
  • SSPE is a condition which may occur as a result of a prolonged measles infection. SSPE leads to the complete degeneration of the brain.
  • Outbreaks have been directly linked to vaccine refusal.

Why was there ever refusal of the vaccine?

  • In 1998 a medical researcher, Andrew Wakefield, published a paper where he linked the MMR vaccination to autism. His study was completely flawed with only 12 cases in his study on which to base any statistics. Only one of these children actually had regressive autism which had been diagnosed well before the vaccination. Five of the children had developmental delays from birth and only received the MMR at 15 months. The other children had no developmental issues at all.
  • In the science and the medical world, the Wakefield issue has been considered dismissed for more than 20 years. Numerous studies around the world have debunked his theory and the claims removed from medical literature.
  • Society, however, has held onto this misplaced concern, according to researchers for the Annals of Internal Medicine. This idea is being fuelled by the anti-vax movement.
  • In an article published by The Business Insider on 4 March 2019, Dr Saad Omar of Emory University was quoted as saying that we appear to be living in a “fact-resistant society”.

 What are the facts?

  • Measles is a largely preventable disease through two doses of the vaccine.
  • Globally, the first dose of the measles vaccine has stopped at 85% but 95% is needed to prevent outbreaks. This means that many people are at risk in our communities.
  • The second dose coverage is as low as 67%.
  • A huge study, conducted in Denmark, with more than 650 000 children participating concluded the following:
  1. The MMR vaccine does not increase the risk of autism.
  2. The MMR does not trigger autism in susceptible children.
  3. The MMR is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination.

One of the most contagious infectious diseases with 90% transmission to susceptible individuals.

“Patients with measles become immune supressed, making them highly susceptible to bacterial infections.”

A father who attended my vaccine workshop told me that he is involved in research. His baby was due three months later, and he was gathering information around the vaccine controversy. It was his view that everything he was reading around not vaccinating was fuelled by emotion with little or no scientific proof. He enjoyed hearing the facts about the diseases and would make his decision accordingly. I have a huge respect for such an approach.

It concerns me that the decision around vaccinating is largely driven by emotion and not fact. As many as 110 000 deaths seem awfully high for decisions to be emotionally driven. In my opinion your choice of a name, the colour of the nursery and such matters are the domain of our emotions. Death, brain damage or other lifelong disabilities are facts, which can be substantially supported.

This article was written for BabyYumYum by our partner paediatrician, Dr Maraschin.

Also read:

If my measles shot was years ago, am I still protected? 5 questions answered
Overcoming vaccination myths: Could addressing the facts during prenatal visits help?