Why the new measles outbreak is a big deal - (6/18/2019)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Ernie, 70, came into the pharmacy for a few items. He said to the pharmacist, “What’s the big deal with measles these days? We all had it as kids. No one died. It was a rite of passage back then.” The big deal is that this bug is back – despite the existence of a vaccine that once had eradicated 99.99% of all measles cases. 

And people did die. During the pre-vaccination 1950s, measles caused an annual average of 500,000 cases and nearly 500 deaths in the US alone. While 1% did succumb to the disease, pneumonia, and encephalitis (brain swelling) likely caused their deaths. Also, measles made one vulnerable to further infections causing diarrhea and otitis media. Who would let their child be exposed to these risks?

Remember infection parties? Over half a century ago, parents would find out which kid in the neighborhood had an infectious disease, such as measles and chicken pox, and drag him or her over to that house to breathe in that kid’s germs. “We wanted to get it over with,” they might say. Measles is tricky in that regard as it takes one to two weeks for the disease to develop and one may be infectious a couple of days before any symptoms appear. So during that time, it could spread to infants who were too young to get a vaccine and to people with weakened immune systems such as the elderly or those with HIV or leukemia. And some kids even went deaf. Ear infections occur in about one out of every 10 children with measles and can result in permanent hearing loss.

While measles is almost a nostalgic childhood memory, like Elvis and poodle skirts, vaccines are here to keep your child out of bed (and the hospital). Yet, many parents reject them. Easy for the parent to say when the child does not want a needle poke anyway and the parent thinks he or she is protecting their child from some imaginary danger. But autism? No! Mercury poisoning? False! 

Not everyone can get the shot. Severe allergies and/or a compromised immune system bar 500,000 Americans from obtaining the vaccine. They rely on everyone else’s vaccinations to protect them, a concept known as herd immunity. Herd immunity also keeps infants safe, since the vaccine is not given until a child is a year old.

Measles cases have been skyrocketing in the US this year, with 1,022 reported as of June 6, the most cases reported since 1992 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Worldwide, the number of reported cases jumped 300% in the first three months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Why is the measles epidemic a major concern? First, the measles vaccine comes as a set and was introduced in 1971. The M-M-R (or measles-mumps-rubella [aka German measles]) combination simplifies the vaccine schedule and relieves children of getting 3 shots instead of just one. So, if you skip the measles shot, you are also missing the other two protections. Second, these diseases have a high degree of morbidity. What if the anti-vaxxers shunned polio, tetanus, and the hepatitis vaccines? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) listed vaccination as the #1 greatest public health triumph of the 20th century. 

Does the vaccination you got a child still protect you? If you received the vaccine between 1963 and 1967, you may need to be re-vaccinated. Certain vaccines given in those years were not effective. Locate your medical records (or ask your mom) to see when you got the vaccine. Or a doctor can use a blood test to check your immunity. You can get another shot if you never had measles before as you can only get the disease once. Ernie told the pharmacist that he did have measles as did most of his third-grade class. 

The last measles death in the US was in 2015, according to the CDC. With the number of cases piling high, why risk a child’s life because of ignorance? The more cases, the more chances for life-threatening problems.  

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Read more at


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