Many people think of the measles virus as a harmless childhood infection. Indeed, at one time it was considered a rite of passage for children to have the disease with some parents opting to have their children deliberately exposed.
It is regrettable that measles has returned. It is once again raising the specter of death over our children worldwide. What is happening? Why is measles on the comeback? In this article, we will examine measles and how it is quickly reemerging as public enemy number one for children everywhere.
First What is the Measles?
For an accurate description of measles, I turned to the Mayo Clinic website.
Measles is a virus and was once very common but can now almost always be prevented with a vaccination. Another name for measles is Rubeola, and the disease is highly contagious. Worldwide measles kills more than 100,000 people each year, most of them being under the age of 5 years.
Measles is a virus that is very contagious and replicates in the nose and throat of the infected person. When these folks produce a cough or sneeze or speak infected droplets get released into the air where other people can inhale them.
Children are notorious for putting objects into their mouths, and the measles virus can remain active for several hours on surfaces. This means that when children contact a surface containing live measles virus then put their hands in their mouths or rub their eyes they can become infected.
Ninety percent of people who are unvaccinated and are exposed to the virus will become ill.
The symptoms of the measles virus appear around 10-25 days after exposure and include:
- Dry cough
- Runny nose
- Sore throat
- Inflamed eyes
- Tiny white spots with bluish-white centers on a red background
- A skin rash of large, flat blotches
The symptoms of the disease occur in stages throughout 2-3 weeks.
Stage One: infection and incubation. For the first 10-14 days after exposure, the measles virus incubates with no outward signs of what is to come.
Stage Two: Nonspecific signs and symptoms appear. Measles usually begins with a mild to moderate fever with a cough, runny nose, sore eyes, and sore throat. These signs are often misunderstood to be the common cold. This stage may last two or three days.
Stage Three: Acute illness with rash. During this stage, the measles rash appears. It usually breaks out on the face first. Over the next several days the outbreak spreads down the arms and body. During this stage, the fever will rise to go as high as 104F (40C) to 105.8 F (41 C). The measles rash gradually will disappear beginning where it began, on the face, and the lower part of the body last.
Stage Four: Communicable period. During this final stage, the person with the measles can spread the virus to others for about eight days, beginning four days before the rash appears and ending after the rash has been visible for four days.
Available Treatments for a Measles Infection
There are no specific treatments to ease the effects of the measles virus. However, there are several to treat the various symptoms peripherally, mostly dealing with supportive care of the infected person.
Proper nutrition and plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration are vital as fever, diarrhea and vomiting cause fluid loss to the body. Antibiotics are sometimes ordered to treat secondary eye and ear infections also pneumonia.
Children diagnosed with the measles should receive two doses of vitamin A 24-hours apart to help prevent eye damage and blindness. Also, Vitamin A supplements have shown to reduce the number of deaths from the measles virus by 50%.
Otherwise, the best treatments are rest and keeping the infected person as comfortable as possible.
Serious Complications from Having the Measles Virus
The complications range from common to rare, but all carry the possibility of death or disability and affect 30% of children infected with the measles virus.
Common Complications. The most common complications to having the measles are diarrhea and vomiting (which can lead to dehydration), a middle ear infection (causing earache), eye infections, laryngitis, and seizures from a high fever.
Uncommon Complications. There are several less common complications to having the measles, however as you will see they can be either very disabling or even deadly.
- Hepatitis (infection of the liver)
- Meningitis (infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord)
- Encephalitis (infection of the brain itself) (1 in 1,000)
- Damage to the optic nerve leading to blindness
- Heart and nervous system problems
- Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis (SSPE) a fatal brain disorder occurring in 1 in 25,000 cases.
Measles Complications During Pregnancy
Possibly the most heinous complication of the measles virus occurs during the first trimester of pregnancy. Indeed, if you are not immune to the measles and get the virus while you are pregnant, serious complications to both you and your unborn child can result.
The measles virus causes the worst damage to the unborn when the mother becomes infected early in her pregnancy causing congenital rubella syndrome (CRS).
Congenital rubella syndrome can cause miscarriage or stillbirth as well as severe birth defects that cause lifelong and devastating problems. In fact, CRS can affect almost every part of a developing baby’s body.
The most common birth defects caused by CRS to the unborn include:
- Premature birth
- Heart defects
- Intellectual disabilities
- Liver and spleen damage
- Low birth weight
- Brain damage
- Inflammation of the lungs
- Thyroid and hormone problems
One a baby has become afflicted with CRS there is no cure. The only answer to keeping a baby from being horribly harmed by the measles virus while in utero is to either get vaccinated before you become pregnant or to avoid any contamination of the disease.
The Beginning of the End of the Measles Virus
In a fantastic breakthrough, Enders and Peebles were able to isolate measles in one sample taken from a 13-year-old boy named David Edmonston. Then in 1963, Enders and his colleagues created a vaccine using the isolated virus, and in 1968 an improved version developed by Maurice Hilleman and colleagues began to distribute the vaccine to the public.
Since 1968, the Edmonston-Enders vaccine has been used as the only measles vaccine in the United States and is usually combined with mumps and varicella then given to young children in two doses.
Before the advent of the measles vaccine in 1963, outbreaks of the disease that occurred every 2-3 years caused approximately 2.6 million children to die and brought severe disability to many more.
In the United States alone, before 1963, 3-4 million citizens got measles each year of which 400-500 died, and 1,000 developed disabilities. However, by the year 2000, the United States announced it had eliminated measles from its shores due to a very effective public health system giving vaccinations to its people.
However, declaring the measles virus eliminated does not mean there were no longer any cases.
The Choice Not to Vaccinate
Despite the availability of the measles vaccine, in Europe, the number of children infected with the measles virus has quadrupled in the past two years going from 10,250 to 41,000. Also, the United States, where vaccinating for measles began, saw an increase of more than 478% in reported cases of measles.
Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control reported that last year (2018), the United States had outbreaks in 26 states including: Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.
There are several reasons that children are not vaccinated against the measles virus.
Unable to receive the vaccine. Some children are born without the immune system capable of receiving the vaccine and will most likely never receive it.
Newborns are too young to be vaccinated. In 2015, during a measles outbreak, six newborns who contracted measles and the other babies who had been in contact with them were placed in isolation. The cause of the outbreak was that a child who had not been vaccinated and had contracted the measles had visited the hospital.
Communities where they object to vaccination on a religious basis. In 2014, a large outbreak of the measles virus occurred among an Amish community in Ohio sickening 383 people.
The Anti-Vaccination Movement. In 1995, Doctor Andrew Wakefield was approached by some parents who stated their children had been diagnosed with autism shortly after receiving their MMR vaccine. They asked him if he would do research to see if there was a correlation or causation between the two.
Doctor Wakefield approached his research project with the theory that the measles vaccine would cause inflammation in a child’s stomach causing them to develop “leaky gut syndrome.” The syndrome, he theorized, allowed harmful proteins to move from a child’s intestines to their brain causing autism to develop.
Then in 1998, Wakefield and a group of fellow researchers published their study linking inflammatory bowel symptoms in twelve autistic children to the MMR vaccine that was published in the British medical journal The Lancet.
The result of that paper was the launch of an anti-vaccination movement in the United Kingdom and the United States that then spread around the world.
A reporter, Brian Deer of the London Sunday Times, began an investigation of Wakefield and found evidence that the doctor had conflicts of interest and unethical conduct committed by him during the research project connecting autism to the measles vaccination.
In February of 2010, The Lancet officially revoked the publication of the article due to the ethical concerns and after ten of the thirteen co-authors of the paper had renounced the study’s conclusions.
Since then, many researchers have attempted to replicate Doctor Wakefield’s research and failed with many more debunking the doctor’s findings. Even on Doctor Wakefield’s Wakefield, who presently practices in both Florida and Texas, stands by his work and insists that his research was conducted correctly.
In fact, on Wakefield’s Texas-based website “Thoughtful House” the frequently asked questions section the question, “Have Thoughtful House researchers found any link between the MMR vaccine and autism?” the answer was, “No such link has been established, but research into a possible link is ongoing.”
Dr. Wakefield has since resigned from the “Thoughtful House,” and the website has changed its name and focus.
Despite the establishment of research to the contrary, the belief that the vaccine against measles causes autism persists. The movement of parent’s choosing to keep their children unvaccinated is an integral part of the reemergence of the measles virus.
World Travel and Its Impact on the Spread of the Measles Virus
Worldwide, in 2016, approximately 90,000 people died from the measles virus because of an estimated 20 million people in developing countries with weak health infrastructures. In fact, in 2014 some tourists visiting from outside the United States went to Disneyland and infected a handful of other visitors.
The American visitors then went home, and within a few weeks, 125 confirmed cases of measles were reported in the United States. Of those, 110 of the children lived in California, and half of them had not been vaccinated. Ultimately, 147 confirmed cases resulted because of contact of other children with the unvaccinated children.
Not only are people bringing the measles virus to the United States, but people from the U.S. are not getting vaccinated when traveling abroad. A study led by Massachusetts General Hospital conducted in March of 2018 found that 53% of all individuals from the United States planning on traveling outside the country were not vaccinated.
If this is a massive problem in the United States, one can only imagine how widespread it must be globally.
Are There Solutions to End Measles Forever?
While it may seem a daunting task, the eradication of the measles virus remains within humanity’s grasp if we work together. There have been calls for a global program of annihilation in the next ten to fifteen years.
Part of the solution is to help countries where the virus is alive and well immunize their population. The aim here is to interrupt the transmission of measles from one part of the world to another. This has already been started with mass catch-up campaigns being conducted all over the world.
Also, during the catch-up campaigns, not just children need to receive vaccinations as older children and adults are also potential victims and carriers of the disease.
Bottom-line, even if parts of the United States and the United Kingdom remain unvaccinated if we help the rest of the world receive vaccinations the spread of the measles will cease.
To end the plague of measles, we must pool our knowledge and resources to eradicate the measles virus off the face of planet earth forever.
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