According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the United States is experiencing the worst outbreak of measles in nearly 15 years. Hundreds of cases of the highly contagious disease have been reported so far this year in states across the country.
Once thought to have gone the way of the Dodo bird, at least in the United States, the recent outbreak is largely of our making, according to Cedric Spak, MD, MPH, an infectious disease specialist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.
That’s because for decades, a highly-effective vaccine that halts the spread of measles has been readily available.
However, some adults and children are skipping the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccination, often because of misconceptions about the disease and the vaccination against it.
Myth #1: Measles Isn’t that Serious
Annually, it is estimated that measles kills more than 160,000 people across the globe, primarily in developing nations. Before the measles vaccine was invented, it killed hundreds of children in the United States each year.
But death is only one potentially serious consequence of contracting the measles.
“In the very young, it can cause a variety of irreversible neurologic syndromes,” says Dr. Spak.
“In other words, brain damage that in many cases leads to permanent institutionalization without hope of any kind of normal development.”
Myth #2: Measles Is a Childhood Illness
Before the measles vaccine was invented, nearly every child in America was exposed to measles at some point before becoming an adult. That’s why measles is typically thought of as a childhood illness. But adults are just as susceptible.
“Measles can absolutely cause devastating illness in adults, causing all kinds of problems,” says Dr. Spak.
In fact, one of the most common ways measles is introduced into an American population–including the current outbreaks in many states–is by unvaccinated adults who travel abroad to developing countries. That is why it is especially important that college students and others traveling for summer service projects or missionary work in developing nations get vaccinated.
Myth #3: The MMR Vaccine Causes Autism and Other Illnesses
The MMR vaccine has been around for decades, studied for decades and given to tens of millions of people annually. There is no scientific evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism or other serious health conditions.
Some people experience a mild reaction to the vaccination, such as low fever or rash. In extremely rare cases, there have been reports of more serious reactions, but it’s so rare that it’s often difficult to determine if the reaction was actually caused by vaccination or something else.
The bottom line is that you are at far greater risk of getting the disease the vaccine is meant to protect you against than any comparable side effects from the vaccination.
“If you’re going skydiving, you wouldn’t jump out of the plane without a parachute because you’re worried about getting injured when your chute deploys would you? Walking around unvaccinated is the same thing.” says Dr. Spak.
Myth #4: Most People Who Go Unvaccinated Are Simply Misinformed about Vaccines
While Dr. Spak acknowledges that some people do not get vaccinated because of bogus information about the vaccine, he doesn’t believe that it’s the main driver behind the recent measles outbreak.
“It’s an epidemic of complacency,” explains Dr. Spak. “Our grandparents can remember kids who they went to school with who died of the measles, but a lot of that older generation is no longer with us.”
Due to the success of vaccination campaigns of decades past, the disease has become incredibly rare in the United States, which has led to a lack of urgency in making sure everyone is vaccinated against it.
“In some ways, we’re victims of our own past success,” says Dr. Spak.
But because of the highly contagious nature of the disease, it can make a roaring comeback wherever there are lapses in vaccination rates, which is why health officials are so concerned about the current outbreak.
So if you or your children have not been vaccinated against the measles, talk to your physician about getting the MMR vaccine as soon as possible. If you’re not sure if you were vaccinated as a child, your physician can perform a simple test to check for immunity.