I had measles when I was a kid. I also had chicken pox and scarlet fever. Thankfully, I escaped polio, which was a crippling scourge of childhood until the arrival of a vaccine in the 1950s.
When I had measles, I remember, the red spots itched all over my body and I had a high fever, but not the disease’s lasting complications that often include pneumonia and the brain swelling of encephalitis. One out of every 20 children who come down with measles gets pneumonia, which is the most common cause of measles deaths in young children. Sadly, for every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two die from it.
When I had measles, I wasn’t alone. The virus that causes measles is very contagious, spreading through the air when someone who has the disease coughs or sneezes. Before medical science brought out a vaccine, in 1963, the statistics were horrific. In any year’s time, somewhere between three million and four million of us got measles; if you’re an older person, you probably had it, too. Tragically, on that basis a lot of children died — perhaps as many as 3,000 every year.
Beyond the deaths that brought so much sadness to families, the Centers for Disease Control in Washington noted that, based on 500,000 reported cases, 48,000 children spent time in hospitals and 1,000 got encephalitis, which often makes its victims deaf or leads to brain damage.
Since the vaccine came along, measles has been almost wiped out in the U.S. The vaccine has reduced the number of measles cases by more than 99 percent, compared to the days when I had the little red spots. The disease was declared eliminated here in 2000.
But measles is still common in other countries. Unvaccinated people get measles while abroad, bring it back here when they come home and spread it to children who haven’t taken the measles vaccination. In only the first two months of this year, there have been more than 100 cases of measles in the U.S. — with outbreaks in New York, Texas and on the West Coast in Washington.
One of the problems is that some people are afraid to get the measles vaccine. They hear that vaccine inoculations can actually cause other health problems. They read it on the internet, on Google, Facebook, Pinterest and weirdo sites far and wide. The internet is fun, but it’s not dependably authoritative. After all, the stuff we see on the internet is like back-fence gossip: Mary heard it from her sister-in-law, who overheard someone talking about it in the grocery store. Duh.
But the result has been a nasty uptick in the number of people nationwide who won’t let their children have the measles vaccination. Researchers say that even five percent fewer vaccinations in America would triple measles cases and bring back the days of old. A main reason that parents avoid or are concerned about childhood vaccinations has been fears about autism. One of the big internet bugaboos has always been that the vaccine caused autism. My son-in-law works with autistic children and he hears that one all the time.
No, it’s not true.
The measles vaccine does not cause autism. Period. Ten years of research announced during the past week, involving 650,000 children, found no association between the measles vaccine and autism. The new research added to a 2002 study that involved 537,303 children and found the same results: measles vaccination does not increase the risk of autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children and is not associated with clusters of autism cases after vaccination.
After this new research came out last week, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the nation’s largest specific association of pediatricians, wrote to the bosses of Google, Facebook and Pinterest urging them to continue taking down anti-vaccine stuff from their social media and “work together to combat the dangerous spread of vaccine misinformation online.”
People my age should tell their children and grandchildren that it’s okay to get the measles vaccination. Doing so can save their precious lives and the lives of others.