Measles Is A Serious Disease

A lack of vaccination can lead to serious complications

Photo by Hyttalo Souza on Unsplash

The United States reported in 2000 that measles was eliminated. Since then, the US Centers for Disease Control has reported an increasing number of cases of measles across the US:

Since 2000, when measles was declared eliminated from the U.S., the annual number of cases has ranged from a low of 37 in 2004 to a high of 667 in 2014. The majority of cases have been among people who are not vaccinated against measles. Measles cases in the United States occur as a result of importations by people who were infected while in other countries and from transmission that may occur from those importations. Measles is more likely to spread and cause outbreaks in U.S. communities where groups of people are unvaccinated.
Source: CDC (accessed April 28, 2019)

As a physician, this is worrying. Measles is a very contagious virus, and it can spread rapidly among people who are not vaccinated. And it doesn’t just cause an annoying cold. Measles is a serious condition, and it can cause serious complications, as noted by the CDC:

Source: CDC

Furthermore, there is a condition called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), which is a rare, but fatal degenerative disease of the central nervous system that can develop 7 to 10 years after measles infection. It is characterized by behavioral and intellectual deterioration and seizures.

This is why vaccination against measles is so important. As the CDC notes on its website:

Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States. Of these, approximately 500,000 cases were reported each year to CDC; of these, 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling) from measles. Since then, widespread use of measles vaccine has led to a greater than 99% reduction in measles cases compared with the pre-vaccine era. However, measles is still common in other countries. Unvaccinated people continue to get measles while abroad and bring the disease into the United States and spread it to others.

Now, vaccines are not totally benign. They can cause complications. Here are the complications associated with the MMR or measles vaccine from the CDC:

MMR vaccine has been linked with a very small risk of febrile seizures (seizures or jerking caused by fever). Febrile seizures following MMR are rare and are not associated with any long-term effects. Because the risk of febrile seizures increases as infants get older, it is recommended that they get vaccinated as soon as recommended.
Some people may experience swelling in the cheeks or neck. MMR vaccine rarely causes a temporary low platelet count, which can cause a bleeding disorder that usually goes away without treatment and is not life threatening.
Extremely rarely, a person may have a serious allergic reaction to MMR vaccine. Anyone who has ever had a life-threatening allergic reaction to the antibiotic neomycin, or any other component of MMR vaccine, should not get the vaccine.

Now, I am a parent, also. I am very scared of possible vaccine complications that can happen in my children. That said, the complications of the disease are far worse than the possible complications of the vaccine. Flu can kill you, especially young children. That’s why I vaccinate, not only myself, but also my children every single year against the flu.

The same goes for measles. It is particularly dangerous in the following groups of people:

  • Infants and children aged <5 years
  • Adults aged >20 years
  • Pregnant women
  • People with compromised immune systems, such as from leukemia and HIV infection

This is why we vaccinate against measles. And it works the absolute best when everyone is vaccinated (called “herd immunity”). Indeed, there has been concern about the purported link between the MMR — or measles vaccine — and autism. And, again, as a parent, I am terrified of doing anything that could harm my children.

At the same time, the research is pretty clear that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. As recent as last week, a very large Dutch study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicated no link between the vaccine and autism:

The study strongly supports that MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children, and is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination. It adds to previous studies through significant additional statistical power and by addressing hypotheses of susceptible subgroups and clustering of cases.

Measles is no joke. It is one of the most contagious infectious diseases known on earth. The stories of measles outbreaks concern me greatly as a physician. We had once declared measles eliminated in the United States, and that was a great thing. Nineteen years later, measles is once again rearing its ugly head, and that can’t be good for anyone. We need to take measles very seriously, and it is very important that we vaccinate ourselves if we are not vaccinated and — more importantly — vaccinate our children as well.