Measles is serious (a history lesson from my Grandmother)

Guest post by Alice Callahan

Today’s post is an excerpt from a longer piece that first appeared on the author’s blog, Science of Mom: The Heart and Science of Parenting.  The blog was the inspiration for her new JHU Press book, Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year.

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 theme parks, 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.

callahanOne 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.

(Our baby, of course, has so far only received the newborn Hepatitis B dose. He won’t receive the MMR shot, which includes the measles vaccine, until 12 months of age.)

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 people 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.

Three brothers (from left to right): Richard (the author's father), Frankie, and Larry Green, circa 1953, in Princeton, New Jersey. Frankie died in 1956, at age 6, of encephalitis caused by measles. Photo by Margaret Green, used with permission.

Three brothers (from left to right): Richard (the author’s father), Frankie, and Larry Green, circa 1953, in Princeton, New Jersey. Frankie died in 1956, at age 6, of encephalitis caused by measles. Photo by Margaret Green, used with permission.

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 grandparents’ second child, Frankie. In 1956, at the age of 6, he died of encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, a complication of measles.

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We live in a privileged time. Just a few generations ago, our grandparents had no choice but to nurse their children through painful diseases, knowing there was a chance of serious complication and even death. Worldwide, measles still killed 122,00 people in 2012, mostly in parts of the world with limited access to the vaccine.

But here in the U.S., our generation of parents has a choice. We get to choose whether or not to vaccinate our children. And oh, how we treasure that choice. The trouble is that we’re so far removed from the pre-vaccine era that we can make the mistake of ignoring the stories of our grandparents and great-grandparents, stories of kids like Frankie. And we can make the mistake of believing that we make our choices in a vacuum. When we’re talking about infectious diseases, nothing can be further from the truth. Sure, a few can choose not to vaccinate, in addition to those who have a medical reason not to, so long as the rest of us do our part to maintain herd immunity. However, when too many make that choice, the disease regains its strength, and its first victims are often the most vulnerable.

I wrote most of this post while holding my 7-week-old baby boy. He is fighting his first cold right now. It’s just your run-of-the-mill cold virus, but his nose is filled with snot, and he has a sad little cough. I know he’ll be better soon, but I hate to watch him suffer. Mothers and fathers will always be nursing their babies through illness, but I’m glad to be a parent in the vaccine era, when herd immunity and my baby’s own immunizations can protect him from the worst of the world’s infectious diseases. Let’s hope we can keep it that way.

Alice Callahan holds a PhD in nutritional biology from the University of California, Davis, and is the author of Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Your Baby’s First Year. She spent two years investigating fetal physiology as a postdoctoral scholar, and, after giving birth to her first child in 2010, she put her scientific training to work answering the big questions about caring for a baby. The creator of the blog Science of Mom: The Heart and Science of Parenting, she writes and teaches in Eugene, Oregon.