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Home » Anti-vaxxers underestimate the dangers of measles

Anti-vaxxers underestimate the dangers of measles


Anti-vaccine activists love to underestimate measles as a benign disease that causes no harm, thus, it does not require a vaccine. Even the Florida Surgeon General, Joseph Ladapo, whom I’ve discussed previously, has decided to ignore CDC guidelines by not recommending measles vaccines or keeping children home in response to a local outbreak of the disease.

This “measles denial” by many people is because there is no cultural memory of measles outbreaks years ago. This happens because the vaccinations were so successful, that the disease is no longer endemic in the USA and many other industrialized countries. Even if the disease enters the USA from endemic areas of the world, the herd immunity of so many people being vaccinated that the disease doesn’t spread very far.

Some people are so dismissive of the dangers of measles that they try to set up “parties” where parents intentionally try to infect their children with other children who have the disease. Yes, it happens and it is appalling. Anti-vaccine crusaders think that the natural infections from these diseases will give some super-immunity to their children. There is no evidence of this.

This article will review two of the most dangerous complications of measles during childhood.

measles virus

All about measles

Measles (also called rubeola, not to be confused with rubella or German measles) is a respiratory disease caused by the measles virus. The virus normally grows in the cells that line the back of the throat and lungs, making it easier to spread. 

The virus is spread through respiration (contact with fluids from an infected person’s nose and mouth, either directly or through aerosol transmission), and is highly contagious — 90% of people without immunity sharing living space with an infected person will catch it.

There are no specific treatments for the disease. There are no miracle preventions, other than the MMR vaccine which prevents measles, mumps, and rubella.

The oft-repeated, and highly inaccurate, claim that vitamin A supplements can cure or prevent the disease completely misses the mark. It’s important to supplement with vitamin A to prevent blindness as a result of measles, but it doesn’t reduce mortality or prevent some neurological issues. Moreover, it is most useful in children with vitamin A deficiency, not exactly a major issue in well-fed children in developed countries.

According to the CDC, some of the many measles complications are:

  • About 30% of measles cases develop one or more complications.
  • Pneumonia is the complication that is most often the cause of death in young children.
  • Ear infections occur in about 1 in 10 measles cases and permanent loss of hearing can result.
  • Diarrhea is reported in about 8% of cases.
  • As many as 1 out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia.
  • About 1 child in every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can lead to convulsions, deafness, and other long-term neurological deficits.
  • And sadly, for every 1,000 children who get measles, 1 or 2 will die from it.

I’m not here for fearmongering – but we know that measles is a dangerous, debilitating disease that has both short and long-term consequences. 

Measles causes SSPE

About 1-2 children, out of 1000 who contract measles, may develop subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a rare chronic, progressive encephalitis that affects primarily children and young adults – it is caused by a persistent infection of the measles virusThe disease starts with measles infection, usually before the age of 2 years, followed by approximately 6-15 asymptomatic years. Some researchers think the asymptomatic period is around 5-8 years after the initial disease. Gradually, the disease progresses with psychological and neurological deterioration, which can include personality changes, seizures, and coma. It is always ultimately fatal.

This leads to a story about Angelina, a typical 6-year-old girl growing up in a small town in Bavaria, Germany. Angelina had measles at around seven months old but recovered quickly as most children do, and no one thought much of it.

Unfortunately, her mother, Gina noticed something, and said,

In February of this year, we noticed significant abnormalities in our daughter. She often fell off the bike and had substantial language difficulties. When these difficulties became more pronounced, we took her to the hospital. The diagnosis of SSPE was a shock to us. Within 8 weeks of our child entering the hospital, she could not walk or talk and has to be artificially fed. Actually, she was supposed to start school this year. This has been very difficult for us all.

According to one of the German physicians familiar with the case,

The course of this disease is not predictable. Between the first measles infection and the onset of SSPE may take many years; however, we know of cases where the disease became symptomatic many years earlier. The measles virus settles in affected patients during the initial infection where it proliferates undetected in the brain. Years later it destroys the brains cells. The disease often progresses in fits and leads to actual holes in the brain. Unfortunately, you cannot stop this progression of the measles virus. From what we know, SSPE is always fatal.

Since a seven-month-old child is too young to receive the MMR vaccine, first given around one year old, along with a booster just before starting school, what does this have to do with vaccines? It’s very simple. Angelina got the disease from another child or adult who was not properly vaccinated against measles. Whether by accident or intention, Angelina died because measles got passed to her, which is something that just shouldn’t happen in this modern world.

Measles damages the immune system

A measles infection can result in short- and long-term immune system dysfunction which can leave the child susceptible to other diseases early in life which is in direct opposition to claims by anti-vaccine activists that it helps “boost” the immune system. Of course, we have new studies that describe why this happens, which will be outlined below.

Two papers, published in Science and its sister publication Science Immunology examined the effect of measles on the immune system in the Dutch Reformed Church. Members of this church have had a tradition of refusing vaccines going as far back as the early 1800s when smallpox inoculations were becoming common. 

Because of this vaccine refusal, there have been outbreaks of paralytic poliomyelitis, measles, congenital rubella syndrome, and mumps in this community. In 2013, a major outbreak of measles hit a Dutch Reformed community in the Netherlands, with 1226 reported cases. Of the 1,226 cases, 176 (14.4%) had complications including encephalitis (1 case), pneumonia (90 cases), and otitis media (66 cases) — 82 (6.7%) were admitted to the hospital.

These two studies of individuals in that religious group who contracted measles found that the infection causes substantial short- and long-term damage to the immune system. 

Dr. Michael Mina, Department of Genetics at Harvard University, has been studying the effect of measles on the immune system for several years. In 2015, he wrote that children who contracted measles are more likely to catch other diseases. 

Dr. Mina concluded that 2-3X the number of children who die of measles may later die of other infections that result from how measles damages the immune system.

Another paper from Dr. Mina explains why this happens. As children, we are exposed to pathogens, which causes us to accumulate specialized B-lymphocyte cells, which produce antibodies against pathogens. These are the main weapons of the body’s immune system to battle those pathogens. Once we are sensitized to an antigen, the adaptive immune system often fights off diseases even before we can present with symptoms of a disease.

The measles virus kills these cells; once that happens, the immune system loses the “memory” of those pathogens. And then those children are susceptible to those pathogens again. Dr. Mina and colleagues determined between 11-73% of the B-lymphocytes were lost forever, essentially losing that amount of their antibody “library” which are the only tools for the immune system to attack pathogens.

And just in case you were wondering, Dr. Mina also determined that the MMR vaccine had no such effect on the immune system. We could have predicted this result since the living measles virus can replicate and attack lymphocytes. The weakened virus in the MMR vaccine is not pathogenic, it just provides antigens to train the immune system.

Dr. Mina speculated that those children who contracted measles had to be re-exposed to all of the pathogens that they had encountered in their lives. Of course, every pathogen has some risk, so these children will be at risk of infectious diseases that they had already contracted, but their immune systems lost the “memory” of them.

In the second study, Dr. Velislava N. Petrova and colleagues uncovered data that the damage might be worse than that. The immune system starts with what are called “naive cells” which are the precursors to all of the adaptive immune system cells.

As these cells mature, they diversify to recognize unique molecules on different pathogens. It allows them to quickly learn, remember, and respond to new pathogens. Measles causes the immune system to essentially reset to infancy, meaning the child’s immune system has to be exposed to many different pathogens to build up the immune system’s memory, in effect, immune system amnesia.

This study is in line with another study that concluded that individuals who have contracted the disease had lowered immunity for up to five years!

This agrees with studies showing that people with measles have lowered immunity for up to five years. That means that common diseases like the flu could have a devastating effect on a child who had a “natural” measles infection.

Summary

If you think that measles is a mild disease like a cold or runny nose, you would be wrong. Wrong.

Let’s start at the top. A child with measles could end up in the hospital, could develop immune memory loss, could have SSPE, and could die. It’s a dangerous disease, full stop.

And the best way to prevent it is with the MMR vaccine which is safe and extremely effective in preventing the disease. And if you think that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism, there is absolutely no evidence of that.

If you live in areas where there are outbreaks of measles, make sure your children are vaccinated. That will protect them from horrible complications. It will save their life.

Citations

Michael Simpson

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