Fort Worth, Texas,
10:07 AM

Measles: Just a plane ride away

Why we vaccinate for diseases we don't routinely see

I’ve been watching the Disney measles outbreak, each day cringing when I see the total number of infected people and hoping that there are no serious complications. Then, the news broke that there is a confirmed case of measles right in our backyard.

In the year 2000, measles were declared eliminated from the United States. This occurred because there was a 12-month period where no measles cases were contracted here, making the disease no longer native to the United States.

I hear this question often in my office and its logical based on the fact that measles was eliminated:

“We haven’t seen outbreaks of these diseases for years. Do we really need to continue vaccinating for them?”

The answer is yes and it's exactly because of what we've seen in the past two weeks. Measles are only a plane ride away. We live in a society with global mobility. People fly in and out of countries where measles continue to be a huge problem and then fly back to the United States. Measles are highly contagious via droplets from coughs and sneezes. In addition, people are contagious before they start to show symptoms. (Contrast that with another infectious disease we dealt with recently (Ebola) that requires blood or body fluid contact and is not contagious until there are significant symptoms.)

Continued vaccination programs protect our citizens when they travel abroad. It protects our citizens when travelers return to the United States. It helps to control outbreaks when they do occur.

Another common questions centers around the severity of these diseases.

I pulled this quote from an interview with The Today Show in Australia and Dr. Sherri Tenpenny:

“I don’t believe that measles, mumps, rubella or chicken pox are routinely fatal illnesses. If you ask any person over the age of 50…they had all those illnesses when they were children and growing up.”

There are so many false assumptions mixed in with this statement:

1. You cannot ask a person in their 50s that died from one of these diseases how serious it is.

2. Even if not fatal, the complications associated with these diseases can be very serious.

3. This completely discredits the suffering of any family member of someone who experienced complications from these diseases.

Just look at the stats. In the United States, prior to the introduction of measles vaccine in 1963:

  • 3-4 million people had measles each year
  • 400-500 died
  • 48,000 were hospitalized
  • 4000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling)

These complications don’t happen as much in the United States, but do continue to occur in areas where vaccination rates are not as high. There were 145,700 measles deaths worldwide last year. This is a 75-percent drop since 2000 due to efforts to make vaccinations available to children all over the world.

Continuing to vaccinate for measles is important because measles are serious and only a flight away ... and lately, even in our own backyard. 


This is part 2 of Dr. Smith’s series on measles. For more information about measles vaccination and herd immunity, click here.


About the author

Justin Smith, M.D., is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Lewisville . View more from The Doc Smitty at his Facebook page. He attended University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School and did his pediatric training at Baylor College of Medicine. He joins Cook Children's after practicing in his hometown of Abilene for four years. He has a particular interest in development, behavior and care for children struggling with obesity. In his spare time, he enjoys playing with his 3 young children, exercising, reading and writing about parenting and pediatric health issues.

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