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Measles is trying for a comeback: How you can help stop it

Health and Wellness, Body, Epidemic

Elizabeth Maslow, MD, has one message for parents considering not vaccinating their children against measles:

“There is no downside to vaccinating your children,” says Dr. Maslow, an infectious disease specialist with Adventist Health Glendale. “You’re helping your children and only doing good by getting them vaccinated.”

This year has seen measles outbreaks in 22 states. Since January, 704 cases have been confirmed in the U.S. That’s quite a lot—especially when you consider that measles was eliminated from this country in 2000.

The U.S. was able to rid itself of measles thanks to a strong effort to vaccinate every child possible. But that success is in danger of unraveling due to an anti-vaccination movement based not on science, but on a lie, Dr. Maslow says.

The facts about measles

“Measles is a virus transmitted from one person to another by droplets,” Dr. Maslow says. “So if I sneeze, a particle flies into the air, where it can linger for two hours. I can sneeze in a cab, get out of the cab and someone who gets in the cab an hour later can catch my measles.”

Measles is so contagious that if one person in a room has the disease, 90 percent of the other people in the room will get it too. That is, if they are unvaccinated.

Measles starts out like a cold—fever, runny nose, red eyes and a cough. Several days later, a rash spreads all over the body.

Measles generally goes away over time. But it can cause complications, Dr. Maslow notes. These include ear infections, which can sometimes lead to permanent hearing loss, and a brain infection called encephalitis.

Measles also can damage your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to other infections.

Before measles was eliminated, about 400 to 500 people died from it each year. About 1,000 people would develop measles-related encephalitis. That’s why eliminating measles from the U.S. was such a big victory.

The lie behind the anti-vaccination movement

British medical journal The Lancet published a study in 1998 that suggested that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism. The study only included 12 children, and it was summarily criticized for its poor science. It later was retracted. In addition, questions about the researcher’s ties to pharmaceutical interests led him to lose his license.

Still, parents desperate to find a cause for their child’s autism used the study as a rallying cry, Dr. Maslow says.

“But there’s not a single ounce of professional data that supports that retracted study,” she adds.

Measles still doesn’t occur naturally in this country; It’s brought in by infected travelers from abroad. But it wouldn’t be able to take a toehold if everyone was vaccinated.

“I want them to see that they’ve been misled by an article which has since been retracted,” she says. “There’s not a single chance of getting autism from a vaccine, let alone the MMR vaccine.”

If you think you’ve been exposed to measles, call your doctor as soon as you can—especially if you’re pregnant or have a compromised immune system. If you’re not sure you were vaccinated as a child, let your doctor know. A blood test can determine if you need to be vaccinated.

Vaccines save lives

Measles isn’t the only disease that needs vaccinating against. Take a look at these other common adult vaccines you should receive.