How the Measles Outbreak Can Open the Door to Many Other Diseases

Every time we get sick and don’t fall gravely ill, we should thank our immune systems. The CDC estimates that as many as 56,000 people die from the flu or flu-like illness each year. These include vulnerable populations such as people with autoimmune disorders, small children, the elderly, and people that are already sick. Generally healthy people can fight off cold/flu symptoms rather quickly and the more serious diseases such as polio, measles, and rubella, have all been eliminated in the United States. So, there’s nothing to worry about, right? Well, measles is threatening a comeback. Last spring the number of measles cases in the United States topped 1,000 for the first time in more than two-and-half decades. And globally the total number of cases rose by 300 percent in the first quarter of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018.

The first symptoms of measles begin just like a cold. You may have a runny nose, cough, and high fever. Progressively, the symptoms become worse. This includes red eyes and kids may exhibit Koplik’s spots, which are small red spots with blue-white centers inside the mouth. Then your skin becomes red and blotchy, full of rashes.

Additionally, there’s mounting evidence that suggests when a person is infected with measles, the virus also wipes out the immune system’s memory of how to fight off all sorts of other life-threatening infections – ranging from gastro-intestinal bugs, that cause diarrhea, to respiratory viruses, that trigger pneumonia. For example, let’s say a small child came down with the flu and the symptoms became so bad that they caught pneumonia as well, but recovered. In the process, their immune system learned how to produce antibodies against that particular virus. Therefore, the next time they encountered that virus, the child’s immune system would know how to react.

Now imagine, maybe three years later, that they got measles. Researchers at Harvard suggest that having the measles causes the child’s immune system to ‘forget’ how to react to the virus from a few years ago, therefore we’re back at square one. This is called ‘immune amnesia”. This becomes dangerous because, as I stated above, every time we don’t die from infection, we should thank our immune systems. If this child’s body must learn how to react to this virus all over again there is no guarantee that the child will survive a second time. This can lead to increased cases increase in cases of rubella, flu and a host of other diseases throughout the population

There is some good news, when a high percentage of the population is vaccinated, it is difficult for infectious diseases to spread, because there are not many people who can be infected. Therefore, if someone with measles is surrounded by people who are vaccinated against it, the disease has nowhere to go and will quickly disappear again. This is called ‘herd immunity’ and it protects those vulnerable groups mentioned earlier.

Today vaccinations rates in children have decreased. During the 2018-2019 school year, an estimated 94.7% of U.S. kindergartners were fully vaccinated against measles – close to a 95% threshold recommended to create herd immunity to prevent disease from spreading, according to new estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many states have a lower individual average of vaccination rates such as Colorado (87.4%) Idaho (89.5%) Alabama (90.6%) Washington (90.8%) Kansas (90.8%), etc. As measles cases are spiking around the world and vaccination rates in the United States continue to decrease, heard immunity cannot keep measles at bay forever. We must all do our part to protect the vulnerable groups by getting vaccinated. Your immune system will thank you. 


Additional Reading

Ricochet Science – Why Vaccinate?

Science Daily – How measles wipes out the body’s immune memory

Vaccine Knowledge Project – Herd immunity (Herd protection)

CDC  – Measles History

article by Tatiana Eaves

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