By Colleen Mattimore and Dennis Z. Kuo
Pediatricians hold their collective breath as the measles outbreak of 2019 spreads across the country. Measles is a deadly disease.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting current measles outbreaks in 10 states, including New York. The main cause of these outbreaks is travelers who get measles abroad, come to the U.S. and spread measles into communities with a high proportion of unvaccinated people. Many doctors in the United States have never seen a case of measles and thought they never would.
Measles is a highly infectious viral disease. When measles arrived in the New World in the late 1400s the indigenous population was reduced to one tenth of its original size. Historians now agree it was “germs,” not “guns,” that resulted in this dramatic decrease in population.
The first signs of measles are fever with a cough, runny nose and conjunctivitis (pinkeye). A red body rash develops two to four days later. Measles is highly contagious and can spread to others through coughing and sneezing. The complications of measles, including pneumonia and infection of the brain, are deadly.
Vaccines, improved living conditions and better nutrition have led to a dramatic decrease in not only measles epidemics but also many deadly childhood illnesses. In the case of smallpox, the disease has been completely eradicated.
The great success of vaccines means people do not remember how deadly these diseases are. In recent years a small but vocal anti-vaccine movement has spread fear and uncertainty about vaccines. Victims of this movement include parents, termed “hesitators,” who in turn question the need for vaccinating their children. These parents may turn to other resources, instead of their doctor, for vaccine advice. The most potentially dangerous resource is the internet and social media.
The most profound example of vaccine misinformation started in 1998. Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist in England, published a paper that alleged the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine predisposed recipients to autism. Wakefield’s research was subsequently found to be fraudulent. His research paper was completely retracted by the journal, his medical license was suspended and the General Medical Council in the United Kingdom found him guilty of professional misconduct.
Unfortunately the seed of doubt was planted; his supposition, although false, spread throughout the world. Despite dozens of sound scientific studies that find no link between the MMR vaccine and autism, many parents still refuse this vaccine.
As physicians our job is to listen, acknowledge parental concerns and then present the science of vaccines. Vaccines are safe; vaccines are necessary; vaccines save lives. Just ask your pediatrician.
Dr. Colleen Mattimore is a physician with WNY Pediatrics; Dr. Dennis Z. Kuo is chief of general pediatrics at Oishei Children’s Hospital.