The handful of measles cases reported in Memphis during April has re-ignited the never-ending online debate about whether to vaccinate or not. Pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine folks keep recycling the same arguments about whether vaccines cause autism or not, whether they’re to thank for the near-eradication of small pox and polio or not, and whether they’re safe or not. It all gets rather tedious to read.
But this column is not about that.
It’s about a trend I’ve noticed, largely on social media, by the anti-vaccination side which has started making another argument: they claim that measles “is no big deal.”
I beg to differ.
If they did a little research, they’d know that of every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control. It might not sound like that high of a chance, but for me, it’s too high when it comes to my child.
According to the World Health Organization, the first sign of measles is usually a high fever, which lasts four to seven days. A runny nose, a cough, red and watery eyes, and small white spots inside the cheeks can develop in the initial stage. Within seven to 18 days after exposure, a rash usually appears on the face and upper neck. Over approximately three days, the rash spreads, eventually reaching the hands and feet. The rash lasts for five to six days and then fades.
That may not sound any worse than the flu, which kills many more people in any given year, but if it stopped there, I wouldn’t be writing a column. Now we’re going to look at what makes measles a pretty serious disease.
The most common complications are ear infections and diarrhea. The ear infection is capable of causing permanent hearing damage in about one out of every 10 children.
But it can do more than damage hearing, it can destroy it. It can also do much more in the line of permanent damage.
One child out of every 1,000 who gets measles will develop swelling of the brain, or encephalitis, that can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or intellectually disabled. Finally, it can also lead to pneumonia, which is the cause of the most deaths from measles in young children and affects one in 20 victims, according to the CDC.
All a pretty “big deal” in my book.
So, how did measles get from being taken seriously in the U.S. to many people being so dismissive of it? Well, one very controversial word for some: vaccines.
In 1980, before widespread vaccination, measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year worldwide, according to WHO. In 2014 that number had dropped to 114,900 measles deaths globally, 4 percent of what it had been less than 35 years earlier. It’s still a lot of deaths, but it’s far less deaths than there used to be from the disease.
It may be difficult to believe now, due to the press coverage, but in 2000, measles was considered eliminated in the U.S. “Eliminated” means that measles was no longer endemic in the U.S. and had to be brought in from outside of the country and less than 40 people in the U.S. a year were infected on average. That was the case until 2014, when cases spiked to 288 in a single year.
With so few cases, it seems pretty easy for people to claim it’s “no big deal” because they’ve likely had no experience with it. This is particularly true of the generations born in the 1970s and onward, after vaccination became common place and measles became rare. From the time I started kindergarten in the early 1980s to my graduation in the mid-’90s, I can’t remember a single case of one of my classmates having it.
It may be this lack of direct experience with the disease that causes so many people to be dismissive of it, or worse yet, left with the belief that their children should catch it like the “good old days.”
One more thing to keep in mind. Even if measles will likely not be fatal or permanently damage your children, do you really want them to deal with its effects? Once they have measles, that means that they’ll be isolated and suffering for at least two weeks. That’s two weeks of round-the-clock care, two weeks of not going out, and two weeks of dealing with your child’s bodily fluids and possibly two weeks of missed work ... not to mention a medical bill. Is that really a side effect one can be so dismissive of?