For most Americans, measles may simply seem like an old-fashioned disease that worried our parents and grandparents. But measles is hardly a thing of the past. In fact, the recent measles outbreak in California serves as a frightening reminder that eradication of this and other diseases may not be permanent. To keep measles outbreaks at bay, it’s important to vaccinate children against the disease.
Before the measles vaccine was developed, an estimated 500,000 Americans were diagnosed with the disease every year, and about 500 died from it. In the year 2000, infectious disease experts considered measles eliminated in the United States. Yet, its incidence has been increasing steadily over the past several years. Last year, the U.S. experienced 644 measles cases— a record number and the most in nearly 15 years. This January, the disease made headlines when a major measles outbreak occurred in California’s Disneyland. At this time, the outbreak has affected almost 102 people in 14 states.
That’s a problem, because measles is not benign. It is highly contagious and is considered the deadliest of all childhood rash and fever illnesses. The virus typically causes:
- A rash
- Bloodshot eyes
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Muscle pain
Complications of measles can include:
- Ear infections
- Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)
- Hearing loss
Before immunization was widespread, most people had developed measles by age 20.
You can see why it’s important to do everything you can to prevent measles. Yet one of the main reasons for the recent measles outbreak in California appears to be the decision of some parents not to vaccinate their children against the disease. Despite fears to the contrary, the combined measles, mumps, rubella (German measles), and varicella (chicken pox) vaccine, also known as MMRV, is safe. There is no good evidence that it can cause autism or other disorders. As this latest measles outbreak shows us, choosing to forgo vaccines may be a personal choice, but it can have far-reaching—and dangerous—consequences for the general public.
Some of the children who have been diagnosed with measles were too young to be immunized: Their health and safety depended on something called “herd immunity.” In other words, when the majority of people in a community are immunized against measles, there is little opportunity for an outbreak. That means that even people who cannot receive certain vaccines (such as infants and pregnant women) still get some protection against the disease. But when parents decide not vaccinate, the chances of an outbreak increase, putting everyone at risk.
Vaccinate Your Children
The biggest step you can take toward protecting yourself and others against the disease is to make sure that your child is immunized against it. The MMRV vaccine is credited with dramatically decreasing the number of measles cases in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control recommends all children get two doses of the MMRV vaccine, with the first dose at 12 through 15 months of age, and the second dose at 4 through 6 years of age. Your child’s pediatrician can discuss the best vaccination schedule with you.