Measles. What’s the harm? All us old folks had them. Didn’t kill us and besides, there wasn’t a vaccine until 1963. Probably should just expose the kids to measles and keep them comfortable. That’s the view of at least some anti-vaccine activists within our community posting on Facebook. They’re wrong.
Measles is deadly, especially for children under 5 as they account for 90 percent of measles deaths worldwide (791,000 out of 873,000 in 1999 — a year before it was declared eradicated in the U.S.).
Also, adults over 20, pregnant women, and those with comprised immune systems are at risk of complications.
Prior to the measles vaccine in 1963, the US had three to four million cases a year, resulting in 48,000 hospitalizations, a thousand cases of encephalitis (brain swelling), and 400 to 500 deaths.
Yet in 2000, measles was effectively eliminated here. Elimination means absence of continuous transmission for more than 12 months.
How? The measles vaccine, which was developed in 1963, is responsible. It was combined with the vaccines against mumps (1967) and rubella (1969) as the MMR vaccine in 1971.
Since 2000, we have had a low of 37 cases (2004) to a high of 667 (2014) nationally.
However, an alarming 981 cases were reported in only the first half of this year by the Centers for Disease Control.
Wait. Didn’t we effectively eliminate the disease in 2000?
Yes, but people travel. In 2018, 233.6 million air passengers traveled in and out of this country (equal to 67 percent of our 330 million population) creating opportunities for diseases to hitch a ride.
What’s causing the spike?
Low herd immunity in some locales.
Huh? Herd immunity is when most people are vaccinated. Then they not only resist the disease, but they don’t pass it along. And that helps protect group members who can’t be vaccinated because of weak immune systems.
Generally, a 90 percent immunization rate keeps a disease from spreading. However, the more contagious diseases need a higher percentage. For measles that’s 95 percent.
When that rate drops, a disease that disappeared from the U.S. can quickly comeback. Luckily, the MMR vaccine is 97 percent effective, so when most get it, our herd protection rate stays high.
But don’t rely on it for you or your child’s protection. It’s best to be immunized. Besides, if enough people aren’t vaccinated, herd immunity drops and that can be devastating.
Ask our friends in Samoa, a two-island nation in the South Pacific neighboring American Samoa. Its population of 195,843 (2016) resembles Kanawha County’s 183,293 (2017 estimate).
Today, they are suffering a measles epidemic. Nearly 4,500 cases have resulted in 63 deaths. Of those deaths, 57 were children under 4.
How did it happen? Their herd immunity dropped.
Unfortunately, two nurses inadvertently mixed measles vaccines with muscle relaxer instead of water and caused the deaths of two infants. Those nurses are currently serving prison terms. Additionally, two siblings passed within a week of their inoculations. They are suspected of having a rare genetic immune disorder and their families are undergoing genetic testing.
That, of course, encouraged widespread false information claiming the vaccinations were dangerous.
The Samoan government declared an emergency last week and closed for two days to provide maximum personnel to assist in the vaccination drive. That increased their herd immunity rate to 90 percent.
Closer home, West Virginia’s rate of immunizations is a high 98.8 percent for two doses of MMR among kindergarten students versus the national average of 94.7 percent.
The reason for the high rate is West Virginia doen’t grant non-medical vaccine exemptions. These have been associated with an increased occurrence of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks according to the state Office of Epidemiology and Prevention Services.
However, there are political candidates running for our House of Delegates who wish to implement personal (non-medical or religious) exemptions. Hopefully, you will ask about their stance on the issue before you vote.
Measles is deadly, yet is easily preventable. Let’s keep it that way.