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John Kiely
Infant and Child Vaccines: Personal Testimonies

Measles Not Worth the Risk

By John Lawrence Kiely
Iím in a hospital bed, gasping for breath. Through the clear plastic of an oxygen tent, I see my Mom. Her face is red and sheís crying and crying. I feel hot. Every few hours a nurse opens the oxygen tent and gives me a shot. It hurts.
Itís 1959. Iím in second grade. Iíd caught the measles, just like my brothers and sisters and friends. Except unlike them, my measles didnít go away. It got worse and turned into something Iíd never heard of: pneumonia. I spent a month in the hospital, survived, and spent a few more months recovering at home. But more than four million children got measles in the United States in that year and 385 died.
Most Americans donít remember those days. Why? Because four years after I got sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began a mass measles immunization program. By 2000, the number of reported cases of measles had decreased to 86 and the number of deaths to one.
So it is distressing to see that this year measles is on the upswing.
As of July, there were 131 measles cases reported to CDC, the highest number since any comparable period since 1996. Most pediatricians and public health officials believe thatís because fewer parents are bringing their young children in to get vaccinated.
And why is that? Because since 1998 the idea that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism has scared them away.
This is not just shameful. Itís scandalous. The entire phenomenon was spawned by a few studies by one research team with results that nobody else has been able to replicate and publish in the peer-reviewed medical literature.
Meanwhile, more than 20 epidemiologic studies have reported no association between the MMR vaccine and autism spectrum disorders, including one published last month.
Meanwhile, allowing your child to skip the vaccine may be a risky decision. Measles is not just a charming appearance of red spots on a two-year oldís stomach.
Recent reviews from Health Canada and Canadaís National Advisory Committee on Immunization compared the effects of measles to the side effects of the MMR vaccine.
Along with the pneumonia I had as a kid (1 to 6 percent of measles cases), the risks of measles include severe encephalitis (one per 1,000 cases) ó about a third of which result in mental retardation. They also include one to 10 deaths for every 10,000 measles cases. Another risk is subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, a rare fatal illness (one per 100,000 measles cases) caused by an ongoing measles virus infection of the brain, in which symptoms of brain damage usually begin seven to 10 years after infection.
And the side effects of MMR? Fever, malaise, a mild rash, swollen glands and a stiff neck in about 5 percent of the patients, febrile seizures in about three out of 10,000, and temporary low platelet count in about three per 100,000 patients. About one in 1 million have an easily treated anaphylactic reaction. And no deaths. Not one.
Because of the relationship of the measles virus to encephalitis, vaccine safety experts have had an ongoing concern that the MMR vaccine might be a rare cause of this disease. Fortunately, all studies with controls have found no association between the MMR vaccine and encephalitis.
In the scientific community, the controversy over whether the MMR vaccine causes autism essentially ended by 2001. Much to their credit, local and state public health officials have consistently been editorializing in local newspapers throughout the country about the safety of vaccines and their importance for child health.
But despite the evidence, federal public health officials have remained almost completely silent on this issue.
Meanwhile, the modern anti-vaccination movement, which has become a hobby of upper-middle-class activists and Hollywood celebrities with no time to learn the basic tenets of epidemiologic methods (or even of the scientific process), has used pseudoscience and misinformation to gain far too much influence on our public discourse on child health.
Itís time for Washington to step forward. No other collection of agencies has the power to get the publicís attention.
Itís time for them to speak, run public service ads, alert reporters, and aggressively rebut the spurious idea about MMR.
My mother wasnít wrong to be crying, back in 1959. The risks of measles are real.
Americans were right to be elated when the measles vaccine became available.
The MMR vaccine doesnít hurt kids. Letting them go without it will.
In parts of the world where measles is still endemic and vaccine is lacking, measles is an all too common cause of death in children. In the developed world, where measles vaccine is readily available, mortality from measles infection is a rare event. In the past year, measles outbreaks in the United States are being reported in numbers not seen in the past decade. The author relates his personal experience with measles and reminds us that vigilance in maintaining high levels of vaccination coverage is necessary to prevent measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases from making a comeback.
John Kiely, PhD, a retired research epidemiologist for the CDCís National Center for Health Statistics, is American editor of the medical journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology. This opinion piece was first published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on October 9, 2008, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
Published 10/9/08
Disclaimer: The Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) publishes personal testimonies for the purpose of making them available for our readers' review. Please note that information in the testimonies may be outdated and may not reflect the current immunization schedule or recommendations.
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This page was updated on July 16, 2021.
This page was reviewed on July 16, 2021.
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