There’s a lot of media attention these last few weeks about measles and vaccines, and I’ve been thinking about a delightful, little three year old who is going to Disney.
(He’s fully vaccinated and recovered from a mild URI if you’re wondering about sitting next to him on the plane…)
I’ve been working to prevent measles my whole career. Really, it wasn’t all that hard at the beginning. I would order a vaccine and wait for the nurse to give it. The number of cases of deadly measles began to plummet early in my career, and I am probably taking more credit than I’m due. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield changed all that with a lie. He lied to his university colleagues and to readers of the Lancet about the MMR vaccine, and the most despicable thing he did was to lie to PARENTS all over the world.
Fact. The MMR vaccine does not cause autism. Fact. Children die of measles.
It’s human nature to make decisions with a gut feeling that something is right or wrong rather than on statistical analysis of data. Parents do it all the time, and it has created a community of vaccine-hesitant parents. This world is a place where I often struggle to communicate. I can speak facts and data, but it’s hard to change hearts. I see websites and TV shows created by people with an axe to grind and wonder where does all this hate and anger come from? I wish it were easier to believe caring pediatricians than former Playboy models.
Before the measles vaccine was discovered, millions of people contracted this unbelievably contagious disease every year (half a million were reported each year in the U.S. alone; 50,000 of those people were hospitalized; 500 of them died.) That’s a lot of statistics. Unlike Dr. Jay Gordon who implies that measles is no big deal now, I know otherwise. Gordon confuses statistical terms like incidence and prevalence, but I did well in stats class… and I can assure you that people still die of measles… today. One fourth of people with measles are so sick that they have to be admitted to the hospital, and that reality gets my attention. An unprotected person could be a baby too young for the vaccine or an immunocompromised child with cancer, and because the virus is so contagious, outbreaks are inevitable as long as there are susceptible people.
A colleague shared her story with me this week, and it really struck a chord.
“I had measles in 1958. I don’t remember it at all, but I remember the stories my dad told me. I was very sick. He was in medical school and brought his professor of pediatrics and all his classmates to diagnose and examine me. The diagnosis was not clear so my uncle, who also was in medical school brought his ENT professor over with his classmates. By then I had very pretty Koplik spots and hallucinations, but the rash took a while to present itself. The only thing I vaguely remember is the taste of crushed aspirin mixed with sugar. “
~Kim Burlingham, MD
As a mother, I trust that I will never experience what Kim’s parents did. Measles affects the brain, and encephalitis will kill a person. Our generation is so fortunate that we have not seen this scary disease because of vaccinations. They save lives. They keep children from dying of diseases that my mother and grandmother knew well and rightly feared. In 2000, measles was eradicated from the U.S. and fears set aside. Sadly, because doctors haven’t been able to motivate the vaccine-hesitant to get vaccines, measles is back.
Yes. Children used to die of measles and polio and even chicken pox. Today, in parts of our world, children still do. Parents should never forget that truth. We are all just one airplane ride to Disney away from another outbreak if we fail to vaccinate our children. My heartfelt gratitude goes to all the parents I know who are committed to preventing disease and to vaccinating children. We are responsible for herd immunity, and people are taking advantage of us. Now it’s our obligation to remind parents who do not vaccinate their children that they must stop depending on the immunity of others. I don’t want it to take a death in Orange County, CA or in Richmond, VA to rally parents. Do you want to know which schools and daycare programs permit unvaccinated children to enroll along side your child? You need only ask.
Gayle Schrier Smith, MD