Measles is back. The outbreak of this highly contagious viral illness that started at Disneyland in December has spread across the country and shows no signs of slowing. As of February 6, the CDC reported 121 cases in 17 states in this year alone, most linked to Disneyland. In 2014, we had 644 cases of measles in the U.S. This is a striking increase compared to the last 15 years, when we usually saw less than 100 cases in an entire year.
I’m sorry that so many people have been sickened in this outbreak and hope that it is reined in soon. This is no easy task given our mobile society and the fact that we like to congregate in places like Disneyland, schools, doctors’ offices, hospitals, airplanes, and shopping malls. Add to that the pockets of unvaccinated people where measles can easily spread, and we have a recipe for still more outbreaks until we can improve vaccination rates. In this situation, I particularly feel for those who can’t be vaccinated. Babies under 12 months of age and people who are too immunocompromised to get the MMR vaccine, like cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, are counting on the rest of us to get vaccinated and reduce the spread of this disease. Right now, we’re letting them down.
One positive outcome to this outbreak is that it has sparked lots more conversation about vaccines. It inspired me to be more public about proudly stating that our family is fully vaccinated. And I wrote an op-ed piece for my local paper, the Register-Guard, about the risk of measles in our community, given the low vaccination rates in our schools.
I spent a lot of time researching vaccines last year for my book. The result is an in-depth look at vaccine development, risks and benefits, and safety testing and monitoring. I also cover some specific vaccine concerns, like whether or not we give too many too soon (we don’t) and if we should be worried about aluminum in vaccines (we shouldn’t). (I don’t just tell you these things, though; I break down the science for you.) I read hundreds of papers about childhood vaccines, talked with researchers, and felt more confident than ever about vaccinating my kids on the recommended schedule.
There was one other bit of vaccine research that may have been the most meaningful to me: I flew to Florida to interview my grandmother, now 90 years old. She raised seven children before most of today’s vaccines existed. She was a mother during the 1952 polio epidemic that killed 3,145 and paralyzed more than 21,000 in the U.S. She was having her babies before a vaccine for rubella was available. That disease caused 11,250 miscarriages, 2,100 stillbirths, and 20,000 children to be born with birth defects in a 1964-1965 outbreak in the U.S.
My grandmother also nursed her children through the measles. Before the vaccine, nearly every child suffered through a case of measles at some point in childhood. During the current measles outbreak, I’ve seen some comments downplaying the seriousness of this disease. After all, most kids did survive measles without long-term consequences. However, many didn’t. Among those who didn’t survive was my grandparent’s second child, Frankie. In 1956, at the age of 6, he died of encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, a complication of measles.
My dad was the oldest of my grandparents’ children and the first of 3 boys: Richard, Frankie, and Larry. When the boys were little, the family lived in a faculty housing unit at Princeton, where my grandfather was an English professor. The families that shared the building were a tight-knit community. They built a playground together and parents took turns keeping an eye on the kids. “It was such a marvelous place to grow up,” my grandmother told me. “There were a whole bunch of kids, and you knew every single parent. Had conferences about your children and so on.”
In May of 1956, all three boys came down with measles. My grandmother remembers neighbors remarking that they were lucky to get it all at once, although this wasn’t surprising given that measles is one of the most contagious pathogens on earth. Those infected are contagious for several days before the characteristic rash appears, and the virus can survive in respiratory droplets, suspended in the air, for two days. Continue reading