The measles virus is not a benign childhood disease

I did not get the measles vaccine, nor did any of my brothers or my sister. The virus had mobilized our own immune systems to fight off any future attacks from the measles virus. That is why the CDC does not require vaccines for anyone born before 1957. That should also give one an idea of how virulently infectious this disease is, because everyone born before the vaccine was introduced is pre-emptively judged to have had the measles. 

Someone suffering from the measles can spread it to 90 percent of the people close to him who are unprotected by the vaccine or a past illness. It is highly effective at spreading itself around through the human respiratory system. Propelled by an ordinary sneeze, the virus can remain suspended in the air—and can live on surfaces, as well—for two hours. One can become infected well after the original sufferer has left the area. 

From the World Health Organization

Measles is transmitted via droplets from the nose, mouth or throat of infected persons. Initial symptoms, which usually appear 10–12 days after infection, include high fever, a runny nose, bloodshot eyes, and tiny white spots on the inside of the mouth. Several days later, a rash develops, starting on the face and upper neck and gradually spreading downwards.

That may not sound bad. Many believe it’s just a childhood disease. But according to a recent Vox article on the measles: 

… up to 40 percent of patients have complications from the virus. These usually occur in the very young (children under 5), in adults over 20, and in anybody else who is undernourished or otherwise immunocompromised. Children under 5 have the highest probability of death.

The most common complication from measles is pneumonia, which accounts for most measles-related deaths. Less frequently, measles can lead to blindness, croup, mouth ulcers, ear infections, or severe diarrhea. Some children develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain), which can lead to convulsions, loss of hearing, and mental retardation. Again, these complications mostly arise in people whose immune systems are already weakened because of their age, preexisting diseases, or malnutrition.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the horrible mathematics of measles looks like this: One in every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia; one in 1,000 will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain); one or two in 1,000 children will die.

One of the lesser-known complications is called SSPE, or subacute sclerosing panencephalitis:

Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis results from a long-term brain infection with the measles virus. The virus sometimes enters the brain during a measles infection. It may cause immediate symptoms of brain infection (encephalitis), or it may remain in the brain for a long time without causing problems.

Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis is rare in the United States and Western Europe because there are few measles cases. However, analyses of more recent measles outbreaks suggest that the incidence of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis may be higher than previously thought, particularly in young infants. Males are affected more often than females. Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis usually begins in children or young adults, usually before age 20.

Nearly always fatal within one to two years of diagnosis, the symptoms may include:

… poor performance in schoolwork, forgetfulness, temper outbursts, distractibility, sleeplessness, and hallucinations. Sudden muscular jerks of the arms, head, or body may occur. Eventually, seizures may occur, together with abnormal uncontrollable muscle movements. Intellect and speech continue to deteriorate.

Later, the muscles become increasingly rigid, and swallowing may become difficult. The swallowing difficulty sometimes causes people to choke on their saliva, resulting in pneumonia. People may become blind. In the final phases, the body temperature may rise, and the blood pressure and pulse become abnormal.

Once thought to be a rare complication affecting 1 in 100,000 people who were infected with measles, newer research shows SSPE’s incidence to be far more common.

Recent research in Germany among children who got measles before they turned 5 identified a rate as low as 1 in 1,700. But the new findings, by researchers at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles and the California public health agency, found that for babies who get measles before being vaccinated, the rate is 1 in 609.

In 2015, there were 189 cases of the measles …

… with 131 cases linked to an outbreak at Disneyland, that put Orange County in California at the center of the worst measles outbreak in that state in 15 years. Twenty-four cases involved children under age 2 who are now at risk of developing the always-fatal SSPE, said Jennifer Zipprich of the California Department of Public Health.

Because newborn infants retain the antibodies from their mothers, vaccination is not generally recommended until children are at least 12 months old. Until then their only protection from the virus, and any of its complications, is from herd immunity.

Herd immunity occurs when a high-enough proportion of the public is immunized and so prevents the easy spread of the virus from person to person. In the case of the measles, it is so contagious that at least 95 percent of the public must be immunized with two doses of the vaccine in order to protect those who are too young or otherwise unable to be protected from the virus. Those unable to be protected include those whose immune systems are compromised by another disease or, in the case of a dear friend, from the medical use of steroids or immunosuppressive drugs. Sadly, these people, especially those under 12 months old, are least able to fight off the effects of the disease or the complications from it.

Unfortunately, thanks to the money-making efforts of a certain former physician and his cohorts, the anti-vaxxers are doing everything they can to remove what protection herd immunity can offer to the most vulnerable of our citizens.

Frankly, I am exhausted by the desire of too many Americans to put their interests so far above the interests of the society in which they live. Yes, I believe in the rights of the individual, but every individual is part of a greater community. And just as we all benefit from the protection of the community, we all owe something to it.

No, we do not have the right to expose others to a disease for which there is a vaccine. After the Disneyland outbreak of 2015, the state of California finally put an end to the ego-enabling legislation that allowed parents to expose others to this virus because they had a philosophical or emotional objection to vaccines.

Most of the bad information that those parents rely on comes from a small, money-hungry cadre that includes men like Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor who was banned from medical practice for publishing a fraudulent study linking vaccines to autism, and women like former Playmate of the Year Jenny McCarthy, who became a vocal vaccine skeptic. And of course there’s filmmaker Del Bigtree who has given them Vaxxed, a movie filled with half-truths and erroneous information.

The problem with the anti-vaxxers is that just like Fox News viewers, they refuse to see the real world outside of their tiny little bubble. To them, all scientific research is false if it demonstrates the safety of the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. Even though it has been used for 50 years on well over 1 billion people, it is just not “right” for their children. It becomes impossible to reason with them.

The latest attempt to justify their untenable position is through misusing the preliminary results of some truly exciting work that is being done using the measles virus to cause cancerous tumors to shrink, in some cases for extended periods of time. According to a report by news station KOIN-6 in Portland, Oregon, there are now anti-vaxxers spreading the word—the false word:

Morell claims measles is a “normal, mild childhood disease.”

“My feeling is, they should be lucky if they get the measles,” Morell said. “They have lifelong immunity. It builds their immune system. It gives them protection against cancer later in life.”

If this were true, my older brother would be alive today, as would every other person born before 1957 who has since died of cancer. There is NO protection from cancer. The reality is that the measles vaccine which contains an attenuated form of the virus, the vaccine that they rant against and fear, is what can shrink these tumors and perhaps send cancer into remission. And that is exciting:

It’s been five years since Stacy Erholtz underwent an experimental treatment for blood cancer that used enough measles vaccine to inoculate 10 million people, and she’s still celebrating her life, moment by moment.

The measles virus was never a “benign childhood disease.” Perhaps it has earned that reputation through the revisionist history that used a Brady Bunch episode showing children in otherwise fine health, with red dots on their skin, playing games. But it is the very same virus that, second only to smallpox, devastated the original occupants of the this land. From Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies:

Of equal importance in wars of conquest were the germs that evolved in human societies with domestic animals. Infectious diseases like smallpox, measles, and flu arose as specialized germs of humans, derived by mutations of very similar ancestral germs that had infected animals (Chapter 11). The humans who domesticated animals were the first to fall victim to the newly evolved germs, but those humans then evolved substantial resistance to the new diseases. When such partly immune people came into contact with others who had had no previous exposure to the germs, epidemics resulted in which up to 99 percent of the previously unexposed population was killed.

It was never benign. It still isn’t.

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