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Infectious Diseases Doctor Shares Why Measles Vaccination is So Important

How to keep measles outbreak like recent one in Ohio from happening in your community

National Infant Immunization Week (April 24 - 30) is a yearly observance highlighting the importance of protecting children 2 years and younger from vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend that children stay on track with their well-child appointments and routine vaccinations. On-time vaccination is critical to provide protection against potentially life-threatening diseases.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included information about deaths during the measles outbreak in Ohio which was incorrect. We regret the error.

By Heather Duge

During the recent measles outbreak in Ohio, the majority of children under 5 years old who were infected did not receive the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Of the 85 children infected with measles, 25 of those children were hospitalized and several were treated in intensive care. Mary Suzanne Whitworth, M.D., Medical Director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Cook Children’s, said the under 5 age group is more at risk for severe cases of measles.

Not only that, but even children who recover from measles, especially those younger than 2 years old, are still at risk for developing SSPE – delayed brain inflammation – seven to 10 years later.

“Delaying the vaccines only leaves children vulnerable for longer than necessary,” said Dr. Whitworth, who never questioned vaccinating her children. “I could not sleep until my children were vaccinated.” infographic-measles-contagious

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all children receive two doses of the MMR vaccine – one at 12 to 15 months old and another at 4 to 6 years old. One dose is 95% effective against measles and two doses are 97% effective.

Some areas in the U.S. are more at risk for outbreaks – particularly communities with anti-vaccine sentiment. Age makes a big difference – being exposed in early infancy can be devastating which is why herd immunity is crucial to protect the vulnerable ones.

Herd immunity means enough people are immune through having the disease or vaccination so the disease does not have an easy place to land and cannot spread. If a person with measles coughs in a room with 10 people and everyone has been immunized, it will not spread. But if four of those people are not vaccinated, it will begin to spread.

Devastating Effects of Measles

Measles infections typically begin with high fever, congestion, cough and watery eyes. Three to five days later a rash may appear with flat red spots starting at the head/neck area and working its way down the body along with spots in the back of the throat. For some children, the infection worsens to measles pneumonia.

“One out of 1,000 children have brain inflammation and one to three children out of every 1,000 will die from respiratory or neurological complications,” Dr. Whitworth said. “These potentially tragic effects of measles are completely preventable.”

View CDC facts about measles.

Q&A with Dr. Whitworth

Q: Is it safe for my child to get the MMR vaccine while being sick?

A: A minor illness such as a cold, fever or sore throat is not a reason to delay the vaccination. The main contraindications to getting vaccinated are if the child is immune deficient or if the child is allergic to any of the vaccine components. Dr. Whitworth says that we are exposed to countless antigens daily, so this vaccine is not overwhelming to the immune system.

Q: Do vaccines cause autism?

A: No, many studies have debunked the myth that vaccines cause autism. In fact, the paper that was published relating autism to vaccines has been removed after proving that it was false. Most of the data points to autism being a genetic condition.

Q: Why is the MMR a combined vaccine?

A: Receiving the MMR vaccine instead of the separate component vaccines results in fewer shots and decreases the chance of delays in protection against all three diseases.