Measles déjà vu

In his Sunday, Feb. 7, New York Times column, “The Dangers of Vaccine Denial,” Nicholas Kristof, one of my favorite columnists, said this:

In a few backward parts of the world, extremists resist universal childhood vaccinations. The Taliban in tribal areas of Pakistan. Boko Haram militants in Northern Nigeria.

Oh, yes, one more: Some politicians in the United States.

According to the College of Physicians, in Philadelphia, measles killed nearly 12,000 people in the United States in 1916, 75 percent of them younger than five years old. That was a world without measles vaccines.

Estimates of the percentage of measles patients who suffer complications from the disease have ranged from 15 percent to as high as 30 percent. Serious complications include pneumonia, encephalitis and corneal ulceration.

  • Measles is serious...
    According to “The History of Vaccines,” a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, “…[t]he majority of measles patients will feel extremely sick for approximately one week, and up to 30% will suffer some sort of complication to the disease, ranging from diarrhea, ear infections, or pneumonia to seizures or hearing loss as a result of swelling in the brain. In some areas of the world without widespread access to medical care, up to 5% of children die of the measles.”

Measles is not just a little inconvenience. It is a serious, highly transmissible disease, and it is preventable. The measles vaccine—delivered now through a vaccination called the MMR, which prevents measles, mumps and rubella—is effective, with very few side effects. Any parent who fails to have his or her children vaccinated today is exposing that child and other children and adults to great risks. I’m baffled that, in 2015, in America, when we have vaccines other people in the world literally are dying for, supposedly educated people are questioning the scientific proof of the vaccine’s efficacy. Maybe some of these nay-sayers are too young to remember when measles and polio still haunted neighborhoods and sometimes killed or disabled our friends. I grew up in those times, and I’d never want to go back.

Measles was declared extinguished in the U.S. in the year 2000. Neither America nor the rest of the world should go backward. Parents should not opt out of MMR vaccination for their children except for the strongest of reasons, based on science and not on disproven rumors. There are plenty of diseases we don’t understand and diseases we can’t prevent. Thanks to the Enders Lab, including Dr. Samuel Katz, who lives in our area, measles is understood and preventable with a safe vaccine—MMR—that also protects against mumps and rubella.

Nicholas Kristof had it right when he characterized the posturing and vaccine denials by saying “…public health illiteracy is bipartisan: vaccination rates are particularly low in some liberal Democratic enclaves in California.”

Public health illiteracy—even among the best-educated—can make people sick. Vaccinate.

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