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Immune Suppressed Children and The Measles: What Parents Need To Know

Dr. Jason Terk answers questions about immunosuppression and vaccines

We know writing about measles and the need for vaccination usually causes debate on our social media channels.

But it also raises important questions that need to be addressed.

Last week after the article 12 Facts About Measles You Need To Know ran, we received questions from concerned parents of more vulnerable kids, including immune suppressed children and newborn babies.

We were able to talk to Jason Terk, M.D., a Cook Children’s pediatrician in Keller and a nationally known advocate for vaccines, to answer a few of the questions we received last week.

1. How could the measles virus impact immune suppressed individuals?

Dr. Terk: People who are immune suppressed have a higher risk for the deadlier complications of measles infection such as encephalitis and pneumonia.

2. Even if your child is up to date on their vaccinations, if they have a low immune system due to organ transplant/cancer/other health incident, how at risk are they? Is the vaccine still effective?

Dr. Terk: Each circumstance is unique so a general answer that applies to every one of them is not possible. For people who are on immune suppressing drugs following organ transplantation, risk from infection is higher because of the higher risk of complications from measles infection. People who are significantly immune suppressed cannot get the measles vaccine either because the vaccine would present a risk to them or because they would not be able to mount an effective immune response to the vaccine which would protect them from infection.

3. What are the risks and best course of action for newborns/babies that are not old enough to receive the first MMR vaccine?

Dr. Terk: The best course of action is to make sure that all persons in close contact with babies less than 6 months of age are properly vaccinated against measles and to avoid situations where larger groups of unvaccinated people are likely to be. The CDC now recommends that babies between 6-12 month who will be traveling to countries with measles outbreaks receive an MMR vaccine to provide short-term protection. This does not count toward the recommended two dose series that starts at 12 months of age. So far, the recommendation has not been extended to the circumstances that are occurring in certain parts of the US.

4. The vaccine is 97 percent effective after two doses, but is that true for someone who is immune suppressed?

Dr. Terk: No. Depending on the severity, a person who is immune suppressed may not be able to mount a good response to the measles vaccine and be protected from measles infection.

5. Could the measles virus mess up a transplanted organ in any way?

Dr. Terk: There are reports in the medical literature of rejection of transplanted organs (specifically livers) following measles infection. In addition, there have been complications of measles infection seen in stem cell transplants.

6. Some people wrote in with the claim that boosting your Vitamin A levels and watching your sugar intake will prevent and/or treat measles. What are your thoughts on this claim?

Dr. Terk: Vitamin A is a treatment given during measles infection because it is known that Vitamin A deficiency increases the risk of severe complications for measles infections. But, this treatment does not actually fight the infection itself and treatment with Vitamin A does not eliminate the risk of complications arising from measles infection.

7. Important work is being performed at the Mayo Clinic where oncologists are treating cancer with the measles. But some have used the work at Mayo and a study from the NCBI as showing that vaccines aren't the way to treat a child with measles, but instead it can be handled by diet, such as skipping sugar. Is this the case?

Dr. Terk: The use of the measles virus to target cancers is one of the exciting new things about cancer treatment these days. However, the measles viruses being used are genetically altered in such a way that they cannot cause general infection. These altered viruses are tailor-made to attack a specific individual’s cancer. I do however recommend skipping sugar as a means to fight the epidemic of obesity.

For More Information On This Topic:

Get to know Jason Terk, M.D.

Dr. Terk is a Cook Children's pediatrician at Keller Parkway. Dr. Terk earned his medical degree from University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. He completed his residency in pediatrics at Mayo Graduate School of Medicine (Mayo Clinic) in Rochester, Minnesota. His interests include public policy advocacy for children's health issues, focusing primarily on vaccines. Dr. Terk is board-certified in pediatrics. New and exisiting Cook Children's Keller pediatrician office patients can make an appointment by calling 817-968-1200 or through the button below to access Cook Children's Patient Portal. 

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