Measles highly contagious and it can be dangerous: Vaccine recommended
by Demont Roseman Jr
Chapel Hill, NC — “She was terribly sick for four or five days, and she missed school for about two weeks. I remember on her worst day she couldn’t move at all — she couldn’t lift her hands or her head and she was too weak to swallow. She was completely prostrate.”
In these words, Mrs M E Wall of Chapel Hill recalled the near-tragic case of measles which struck her 1st grade daughter, Martha. Contrary to widespread belief, measles is not a mild disease.
“The thing I remember most,” Mrs Wall continued, “was three weeks after the measles. It was a mysterious thing. I got a call from school that Martha couldn’t see. The teacher had put some large numbers on the blackboard and Martha couldn’t read them.”
Martha, who was 6-1/2 years old at the time, was rushed to a physician and then hospitalized “for all kinds of tests.”
“We feared brain damage because of the high fever during the measles,” Mrs Wall remembers. “Martha had some peripheral vision, but for all purposes her vision was gone.”
Martha was in the hospital for 10 days. She returned home with no improvement in her condition.
“We were pretty well resigned to having a child who would never read,” Mrs Wall said. “She could get around the house, so we felt she had some light perception. But we knew she had very little vision left.”
Much to the surprise of the attending physicians, Martha’s vision began to return gradually to normal over the next two months. Her recovery from what had been labeled as optic neuritis and as measles encephalitis is still unexplained.
Martha’s near disaster, although it occurred shortly before the measles vaccine was made available, is retold to emphasize the danger of this highly contagious and common disease. Partially because too many parents view measles too lightly and consider it a mild disease, there will be 4 million cases in the US this year.
The let ’em-catch-it-and-build-up-an-immunity-to-it theory is hazardous. It’s been outmoded by the development of a reliable measles vaccine.
Dr John H Arnold, a specialist in children’s diseases at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, says that mild cases of measles “just don’t happen.” The threat of complications is always present.
“The most feared complication,” he believes, “is damage to the nervous system from encephalitis.” Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) strikes about one in every 2500 measles victims — and is fatal for one-third of those with such complications.
The “real measles” — known variously as rubeola, red measles and “the 10-day measles that last two weeks” — can be followed by respiratory illnesses, with pneumonia the most common.
Measles is a sinister disease because some of the damage it causes may be hidden. Brain wave recordings made routinely of a group of hospitalized children with the measles showed that more than half of the recordings were abnormal. This means, Dr Arnold explains, “there’s a lot of central nervous system damage (from measles) we haven’t known about.”
Brain wave patterns for children who have had the measles vaccine have been normal, a finding Dr Arnold considers a testimonial to the safety of the vaccine.
A live attenuated measles-virus vaccine, first tested in 1958, was licensed last year. Experience so far indicate that it is from 97 to 99 percent effective in preventing the disease.
Measles vaccine Q&A
How long will the vaccine provide immunity?
“So far as we know now, it is good for a lifetime — but we have no definite proof yet,” Dr Arnold says. “We may find later that a booster will be necessary every five or 10 years.”
How is the vaccine given?
It is given in as two injections at one sitting. One injection is a dose of the measles vaccine and the other injection is a dose of gamma globulin which “knock the top off any reaction to the vaccine.”
The vaccine actually puts a living measles virus into the patient. This virus multiplies and causes antibodies to form against the disease. A mild reaction of fever and a rash occurring six or seven days after the injections signifies a good “take.”
Who should take the vaccine?
“Anyone over 9 months of age who hasn’t had measles previously,” recommends Dr Arnold, “but with these exceptions — pregnant women; children with malignant diseases such as leukemia; patients taking steroids or X-ray treatments; persons with allergies to eggs and egg-containing foods; or anyone with a severe disease causing fever.”
Generally, a physician will not give the measles vaccine at the same time another live vaccine (such as polio, small pox or yellow fever) is given.
At the present time, children with tuberculosis do not get the measles vaccine, but this practice may be changed in the future.
What does the measles vaccine cost?
Usually $10 or less.
When is the measles season?
Usually from January to June, but sporadic cases can occur at any time.
Photo: Dr Schreiber giving a typhoid inoculation at a rural school, San Augustine County, Texas / April 1943. Courtesy LOC.