Measles outbreaks have been recently reported in Ohio and California. Measles, mumps and rubella – really!
Have we become complacent in the face of all the current medical technology? Are we more worried about which vitamin is best than we are about vaccinating our children? Does the average doctor even know how to diagnose measles?
Measles, a classic childhood disease 60 years ago, is caused by a tiny and well-defended virus. When it was widespread in my own childhood, it was considered simply the cost of being a kid. Nobody got overly excited about measles, and the most severe complications are not common in healthy kids. It was no big deal.
The isolation of the measles virus in 1954 allowed an effective vaccine to be produced. Why produce a vaccine against what was considered a rite of passage? Because our parents didn’t tell us the truth about measles; it is a nasty disease that can have frequent and devastating complications.
Garden variety measles is highly contagious. If you are unvaccinated and living with someone who gets measles, the chance of catching it is more than 90 percent. If it’s around and you are not immune, you will likely get it.
It takes a week or two to get the symptoms after exposure. This usually starts with a very high fever (104 is common), runny nose, red eyes, deep cough, and feeling like “death warmed over.”
A few days after this, the rash develops and red spots are all over your body and they often itch. All this “fun” goes on for about a week to 10 days if nothing bad happens.
What could happen? A surprising variety of complications are relatively common. Pneumonia is one of the most common. The virus weakens you, and you can develop either a viral pneumonia or the more severe and dangerous bacterial pneumonia. If you thought you were sick before, welcome to the 7th circle of hell!
The nervous system can also get into the act. Encephalitis is a brain inflammation/infection from measles that can cause all manner of mayhem, and even be fatal. This is the most feared complication of measles.
Of course, measles is a much worse disease in adults (as most childhood illnesses are). Adults typically get sicker.
This is a hard virus to avoid if you have not been vaccinated. If you call a doctor or urgent care center and say you may have been exposed to measles, and were not vaccinated, there is nothing we can do except offer you the vaccine.
The vaccine is unlikely to work because it is racing the live virus to see which one infects you first. Remember, the measles virus got a head start!
Measles is well worth avoiding, so why does anyone skip the vaccine? There was an unfortunate article in The Lancet medical journal a dozen or more years ago that suggested there was a connection between the measles vaccine and autism.
This was such bad science that the British medical board took the medical licenses away from the doctors after writing this erroneous article.
Lancet withdrew the article with a full explanation of why there was no connection between measles and autism. However, the damage had been done and this evil Genie would not go back in the bottle. The bogus article even generated a cottage industry of supposed vaccine-caused problems that still exists today.
Measles has no animal reservoir, so it is possible to wipe it from the planet, like smallpox. The usual vaccine schedule in the U.S. is to give the first dose at 18 months. Much earlier and the vaccine doesn’t work because the mother’s antibodies against measles kill the vaccine.
The second dose is just before starting school (age 4-6), and confers lifetime immunity. You can always get an extra dose of vaccine as an adult if you are unsure of your vaccine status.
So contrary to popular belief, measles is a big deal. It will make you plenty sick and is worth avoiding. The advice here is get your shot at an urgent care center like U.S. HealthWorks Medical Group and avoid needlessly suffering.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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