By now we’re all familiar with the recent Measles outbreak in California, stemming from Disneyland. We also are familiar with the controversy associated with it’s spread and the anti-vaccination movement. What we all might not be familiar with are the facts and history of Measles, and why it’s so important. Is it all just media hype and fear mongering, to make the pharmaceutical companies rich, or is there real danger and a reason for concern?
What is Measles?
Measles is not a bacteria, it is a virus, you cannot treat it with antibiotics. Measles is one of the leading childhood diseases worldwide, but adults can contract it too. Only humans are known to get Measles, it is not spread from some wild animal somewhere. You can only get it from another human being. With that being said, it is an infectious disease, meaning it is highly contagious. If you are exposed to it without having immunity, there is a 90% assurance that you will develop the disease.
How is it spread?
The Measles virus is spread through the air via droplets from someone coughing or sneezing, making crowded and enclosed places like stadiums, airplanes, dorms, schools, and urban cities prime location for its transmission. It infects your lungs first before moving to your lymphatic system, where it then spreads throughout the rest of your body. Once you’ve been infection anywhere from 8 to 12 days can pass before you begin to show symptoms. This is one reason why it is so communicable. People who do not know they are infected can spread it to their families, coworkers, and anyone else they come in contact with without even knowing it. You become contagious 1 day before symptoms appear and up to 4 days after the rash subsides.
What are the signs and symptoms?
Infected persons will experience a runny nose, irritability, red eyes, cough and fever. The disease is characterized by small grayish white spots in the mouth and throat, and a blotchy red rash that spreads from the face down until it covers the body. The virus suppresses your immune system. As a result, a secondary bacterial infection could develop, this can be treated with antibiotics, but measles itself has no cure. Only the symptoms can be managed; drugs to lower fevers, and fluids to maintain hydration. Once you’ve had measles, you cannot get it again, if you survive you will acquire life long immunity. There are however some complications that could arise from the Measles such as, pneumonia and encephalitis, which can be fatal.
My generation grew up with chickenpox, similarly previous generations routinely got childhood diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and scarlet fever. Polio has been eradicated, and now there is a vaccine against chickenpox. With the advent of the first Measles vaccine in 1963 and the subsequent MMR(measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine in 1972, a mass campaign was set out to immunize all school age children. Measles was on its way to being eradicated in the Western hemisphere, until 1998 when Dr. Andrew Wakefield published an article in the Lancet claiming an association between vaccines and, autism and bowel disease. It was later withdrawn from the journal, found to be erroneous, and further disproven by the science community. However, the media did not spread the good news, parents became fearful, and the anti-vaccination movement was birthed.
There have been several Measles outbreaks before. From 1989 to 1991 more than 55,ooo cases were reported with 130 resulting in death. Then again from 1993-1995 there was about 300 more cases reported in the U.S. in which victims were unvaccinated. In 2005 and 2006 there were outbreaks in Indiana, and Boston respectively. Current strains stem from Europe an Asia, where the disease still occurs. In 2013, there was an increase in Measles outbreaks in England, France, and Spain. So, travelers from other countries that do not immunize can bring in the disease, and traveling un-vaccinated can also expose you to the Measles while abroad.
Even if you are vaccinated, you can still get Measles. Yes, you read correctly, you can still get Measles if you have been vaccinated, however if you do it will be much milder. The reason for this, is as you age the immunity you gained from your childhood vaccination may wane, or decrease. The amount that this happens differs from person to person, and can only be assessed by your doctors. This is the reason you have heard medical officials suggest a booster shot for adults as a result of the recent outbreak. It is not a scheme for “big pharma” to make more money. Another reason is that some people who have been vaccinated never acquired immunity, this doesn’t happen often, and to prevent this from occurring a 2 dose vaccine has been employed. The first is given as early 1 year of age to the start of pre-k/kindergarten. The second dose can be given any time after. However, of those recently infected, most were of the population that has not been vaccinated. Those who have been vaccinated will have protection for at least 27 years. Some people are not vaccinated for good reason. These include, cancer patients, those with HIV/AIDS, and other immunosuppressive illnesses, pregnant women, and babies under 1 year of age. Newborns acquire immunity from their mothers, this immunity however is only short-lived.
Thus far, measles outbreaks have occurred recently in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. It was once near complete eradication in the western hemisphere and other developed countries, it’s still a major problem in Africa and the East. There are efforts worldwide to eliminate this disease completely. As long as human hosts exist whom are capable of carry and spreading the disease there will be outbreaks. This is why vaccine compliance is required. As vaccinations go down, those with natural immunity die off (people who had it and survived), and the immunity of an aging population wanes, heard immunity goes down. With heard immunity lowered, the virus has the chance to spread and infect those who are susceptible and unvaccinated. The good news is that once an outbreak has passed through a community, all those who have been exposed will become immune for life, and those who have been vaccinated will have their immunity boosted naturally.