Measles: What's the Big Deal?

February 11, 2015

People may be asking, “What’s the big deal about measles? I had it as a kid and I am fine.” That may be true for you, but prior to widespread use of the measles vaccine in 1963 (reconfigured in 1968), 3-4 million people got the measles every year in the U.S. of which 400-500 died and 4,000 contracted encephalitis (swelling of the brain.) (Centers for Disease Control-CDC data)

 Although the measles germ never disappeared from the world, the vaccine protects people from developing the disease. So while the disease has not been eliminated, the number of cases that occur each year in the United States were drastically reduced through a vaccination program. That is until this recent outbreak whose origins have been traced to Disneyland in California.

 Why are we seeing more cases now? There are several explanations. Infants cannot be vaccinated until they are 12 months old. As stated above, the measles germ never disappeared from the world. There are still many countries where measles is a prevalent disease. Furthermore, many parents today are concerned about vaccine safety and make a decision to not have their children vaccinated. (This is a very controversial issue and is being discussed at the national legislative level.) So if you travel or encounter unvaccinated travelers in the U.S and you have a child who has not been vaccinated, your infant can get the measles. This is also true if you have never had your child vaccinated.  

 Infants are generally vaccinated at 12-15 months of age with the first dose and receive a booster at 4-6 years of age. However, the CDC suggests that if you are going to travel to a country with your infant where measles is still prevalent, discuss an earlier vaccination plan with your health care provider.

 In the United States, we have 16 diseases that are preventable by vaccination. Vaccines work! Although there has been suspicion on the part of many parents that vaccines are not safe and may cause autism, the safety data on vaccines has found that vaccines are 90-99% effective, do not cause autism and it is very rare for the side effects of a vaccine to be serious. For example, fewer than one in one million persons receiving the measles vaccine have had serious allergic reaction. Before vaccines are released for use, they are studied for safety. This safety data is reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), The American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Academy of Family Physicians. The FDA monitors the production of the vaccine and continues to monitor its safety record. Reactions to vaccines are reported by doctors and consumers to the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS.)

 Unfortunately we live in an era where there is suspicion on some people’s parts about government honesty and the financial interests of drug companies who produce vaccines. However, rest assured, no one wants to harm children. Parents know how hard it is to have an ill infant with even a mild fever. Imagine your baby with a 1060 fever, covered in an itchy rash head to toe, barely able to swallow. A vaccination against measles can prevent this.

 Over the past several weeks, the District office has received phone calls from adults who need to know their vaccination status for college or work and do not have any immunization records or known history of the disease. While most adults born before 1963 probably had measles and those born after were most likely immunized, you can determine this by having a blood test called a titer that will give you proof of immunity. If it turns out you were not immunized, you can then get the immunizations. Or you can just get an immunization if you don’t know and don’t want to get a titer.

 For adults, the CDC considers that you are immune if persons who were born during or after 1957 who do not have evidence of immunity against measles should get at least one dose of MMR vaccine. You are considered protected from measles if you have at least one of the following: written documentation of adequate vaccination (one or more doses of a measles-containing vaccine administered on or after the first birthday for preschool-age children and adults not at high risk or two doses of measles-containing vaccine for school-age children and adults at high risk, including college students, healthcare personnel, and international travelers); laboratory evidence of immunity; laboratory confirmation of measles; or birth in the United States before 1957.

For more information on measles (symptoms, course of the disease, etc.) there are many websites you can visit: qvhd.org; CDC.gov, WebMD, KidsHealth.org, or Mayo Clinic. If you are a district resident (Bethany, Hamden, North Haven or Woodbridge) and do not have internet access, QVHD can send you printed materials. Call QVHD, 203 248-4528 or email dculligan@qvhd.org