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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Welcome Back, Measles

By Roy Benaroch, MD

Measles isn’t just spots—it’s a very serious illness. Symptoms beyond the rash include high fevers and a terrible cough. Even with good medical care there’s a significant chance of hospitalization or death when a child gets measles. Years after natural infection, some children will develop an untreatable degenerative brain condition. It gets worse: measles is about the most contagious illness we’ve had to deal with. The infectious virus can linger, floating in the air well after the patient has left. Don’t want to catch it? No problem—just don’t breathe any air that anyone with measles has breathed. And keep in mind that people with measles are most contagious for about two days before they even know they’re sick.

Of course, there’s an easier way to prevent measles: a very safe and effective vaccine has been available for decades. After two doses of vaccine, excellent protection lasts for a lifetime. Unfortunately, a tiny study of a handful of children in 1998 created a huge scare about the measles vaccine that torpedoed vaccination efforts throughout the world. Turns out, the main author of the paper made up his data. That’s right, it was an absolute fraud. No one since has corroborated anything said in the paper, which has been thoroughly and completely debunked.

So what happened? Because of the scare, vaccination rates, especially in Great Britain, plummeted. And measles, once thought to be almost eliminated from the developed world, has come surging back. In Europe last year, 26,000 cases were reported. Health authorities now stress that even babies as young as 6 months should get a measles vaccine before traveling anywhere, including Europe.

Other vaccine-preventable diseases have returned, too. Welcome back, pertussis: the 100-day, untreatable cough. Older kids and adults cough until they vomit or pass out. Little babies just die.

We’re fortunate to live in a world where memories of these illnesses have faded, but that’s left us complacent. A little fear might be a good thing—not a misplaced fear of vaccines, but a fear of genuinely bad diseases. Let’s get these genies back in the bottle. Make sure your kids are safe, protected, and vaccinated.

Posted by: Roy Benaroch, MD, FAAP at 4:10 pm

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