Most seniors, those over age 55 in the U.S. population, remember measles, mumps and rubella. Today, many family physicians have never seen cases of measles numbering in the double digits in their practice areas, town and city school districts, as were observed in the 1950s and early 1960s before the MMR vaccine became fully available. Everyone living in the United States today is fortunate to be able to put measles as a major health threat behind them, so far. Children growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s lived with the knowledge that if their school friends had measles, they would most likely get the disease too! At that time, it meant at least one week in bed and out of school–with no visitors except your parent caregiver (usually your mother), and she couldn’t leave the house either, because the family would be quarantined.
But thanks to scientific research and the work of many great physicians, scientists, virologists, and epidemiologists, children living in the U.S. had first the measles vaccine in 1963. Before that time, however, as noted by the Centers for Disease Control in their history of measles, by the time they were 15 years old, nearly all children had experienced the measles. CDC estimates at that time, “3 to 4 million people in the United States were infected each year,.. an estimated 400 to 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 4,000 suffered encephalitis (swelling of the brain) from measles.” 1 Early in the 20th century, the prognosis was far worse, an estimated 6,000 people died from measles each year in the U.S. 2
What is Measles? Simply, measles is a highly contagious virus, causing respiratory infection, runny nose, fever, red eyes, cough, and a generalized red rash. Coughing, sneezing airborne secretions of mucus and saliva and close personal contact will spread the measles. CDC also points out that every year people who either haven’t been vaccinated and who travel are often exposed to measles, and they can carry the disease from wherever they were exposed into the U.S. So it’s good for most travelers to have been vaccinated (with MMR vaccine) before traveling to places where measles still exists, so they do not contract the disease and spread it to others. Having experienced measles as an adult at 28 years of age, I corroborate that this is not a disease you want to get, and the older you are, the more uncomfortable and dangerous it can be.
In 2011, 220 people in the United States were diagnosed with measles. Despite the success of eliminating measles by vaccinating people, outbreaks still occur. Some parents have questioned whether the MMR vaccine causes autism–and this concern still lingers and is being studied–despite the fact that there have been repeated studies which indicate otherwise. Yesterday, it was announced in the press 3 that a 7-month old infant in northern New Jersey has contracted measles and may have exposed others between January 17 and 23. The child was treated in hospital and is recovering at home. The hospital is contacting people who may have been exposed in the hope to head off any spread of the disease. It is important that parents and caregivers understand the benefits of vaccinating their children. We must think not only of our own families but of those around us, and be good stewards of community health and be aware of preventive measures that keep families and children healthy and safe.
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,1600 Clifton Road Atlanta, GA 30329-4027 USA, www.cdc.gov/measles/about/history.html
3Ridgewood Patch, “North Jersey Baby Diagnosed with Measles: State Health Officials”, Hubbard, Daniel, January 30, 2017. http://patch.com/new-jersey/ridgewood/s/g0ltz/north-jersey-baby-diagnosed-with-measles-state-health-officials