When it comes to immunizations, rumors and worried whispers are
a mainstay is some parenting circles - from concerned conversations
on soccer field sidelines to pointed posts on message boards and
blogs. And once a seed of doubt is planted - even if the science or
the source behind it may be unreliable or unsubstantiated -
it's hard for perplexed parents to get it out of their
As more and more moms and dads opt not to have their kids
vaccinated because of their personal or religious beliefs, health
officials this year are seeing the highest rate of measles cases in
the United States in more than a decade (since 1996).
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 131
people were infected with measles (also called rubeola) in 15
states from January to July this year alone - and 2008 isn't
even over. That's more than twice the number of cases (63, on
average, each year) from 2000 to 2007.
Looking at who's getting the disease and from where, the CDC
- 91% of those infected hadn't been vaccinated or their
vaccination status was unknown
- 89% of the cases were linked to people coming from or
traveling to other countries, especially those in Europe
- 76% were under 20 years old
Before the vaccine was introduced in the mid-1960s, measles
caused about 450 deaths and 4,000 cases of encephalitis
(inflammation of the brain) each year. An epidemic of the disease
did break out in the United States between 1989 and 1991 when
falling rates of immunizations among preschoolers led to a sharp
increase in the number of measles cases, deaths, and children with
permanent measles-related brain damage.
But after about 30 years of an active vaccination program, the
disease was virtually wiped out here in 2000. The United Kingdom
also thought it had gotten rid of measles 14 years ago, but
it's now widespread again since immunization rates there have
dropped - a worrisome situation the United States may soon be
Measles still affects 20 million people worldwide every year.
And, despite the common perception that the disease just causes a
nasty rash, measles can actually be very serious and even deadly -
globally, it killed 311,000 kids under age 5 in 2005 alone.
More on Measles
Measles is a viral infection that can spread easily through the
air by sneezing and coughing. The illness causes a total-body skin
rash and flu-like symptoms, including a fever, cough, and runny
In some cases, the infection can lead to other health problems
- conjunctivitis (pinkeye)
- ear infections
- myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle)
A concern weighing on many parents' minds when it comes to
vaccines is autism and the MMR vaccine that protects against
measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles). But study after study
has found no scientific evidence that autism is caused by any
single vaccine, combination vaccines (like the MMR vaccine),
the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, which was once
widely used in many childhood vaccines (including MMR) but has
since been eliminated.
The controversial 1998 study that originally started the debate
by suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism was
retracted - or thrown out - in 2004, long after it had been
rejected by many major health organizations. But the study and the
attention it received influenced parents worldwide and contributed
to a decrease in immunization rates.
Despite the lack of scientific evidence that it causes any harm,
manufacturers began removing thimerosal from kids' vaccines in
1999 to reduce childhood exposure to mercury and other heavy
metals. Now, the flu vaccine is the only one used in kids 2 and
under that contains
of the preservative. Although some of the flu vaccines do have
thimerosal in them, most of those available for children have only
trace amounts and are technically considered thimerosal-free.
What This Means to You
The only way to protect your kids from getting measles is
immunization. Children should get the MMR vaccine at 12 to 15
months and then the follow-up booster shot between 4 and 6 years.
And if you're planning to take a trip abroad with your baby in
tow, infants ages 6 to 11 months should get the MMR vaccine,
The fact is, a series of simple shots given from infancy to the
teen years can fend off many major illnesses in millions of kids.
Yet, a recent CDC study found that more than a quarter of young
U.S. kids (ages 18 months to 3 years) aren't getting their
vaccines on time.
Some parents may hesitate to have their kids vaccinated because
they're worried about the risks and the possibility of serious
reactions. Although some vaccines may cause mild reactions - like
temporary fever and soreness around the shot site - serious
. All in all, the risks of serious reactions to vaccinations are
extremely small compared with the health risks associated with the
often-serious diseases they're intended to prevent.
Even though you may wonder why your children need immunizations
if many of the diseases they protect against are no longer
prevalent in the United States, infectious diseases that are rare
or nonexistent here (because of immunization programs like those
for measles and polio) are still huge problems in other parts of
That means if immunization rates are allowed to drop among U.S.
children, the spark for a major epidemic would be only an airplane
flight away - when a disease could be introduced by just one
unimmunized person (either an American traveling overseas or
someone coming into the United States). Case in point: One
12-year-old boy from Japan who unknowingly had measles came to the
United States for the August 2007 Little League World Series and
passed the infection on to others.
An individual child's chance of catching a disease is low if
everyone else is immunized. But if the number of unimmunized
children in a population grows, the risk of sparking an epidemic
Although it's natural to want to ensure that everything you
do is in your youngsters' very best interests, when parents
don't have their kids vaccinated, for whatever reason, it can
affect everyone. That means even if you've made the decision to
not vaccinate your children, it's not just your kids who could
be at risk of catching certain preventable diseases - they could
pass them on to other children, too (like babies who are too young
to be vaccinated).
That why it's only safe to stop vaccinations for a
particular disease when that disease has been totally wiped out
, as in the case of smallpox.
To make sure your kids get all of the immunizations they need on
time at every age:
- Schedule and keep all of your family's regular
- Get routine vaccinations on schedule as children grow - not
just in the infant and toddler years, when most vaccines are
given. Routine vaccines and boosters are also recommended between
the ages of 4 and 6, 11 and 12, and then again before teens enter
- Find out when your kids can get any vaccine that's in
- Ask your doctor about any new vaccines. Boosters and vaccines
are added to the childhood immunization schedule all the time -
like the now-recommended chickenpox booster for 4- to 6-year-olds
and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine for 11- to 12-year-old
- Never skip a dose in a vaccine series. Kids don't have
adequate protection if they don't get all of the recommended
doses for each series at the right time.
- Ask your doctor if you or your kids need any catch-up
immunizations or boosters to ensure that your protection is up to
date, especially if you're planning to travel overseas.
And before you jump to any conclusions or accept any medically
related message you see, hear, or read about - no matter how
reliable or believable the source may seem - talk to your doctor
first. Discuss the information you've encountered, ask what it
really means, and get all of the facts before making a decision to
delay or skip an immunization - a choice that could affect not only
your kids' health but also that of other children.
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2008
Source: "Update: Measles - United States, January-July
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
), Aug. 22, 2008.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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