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 Measles and Me

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I’ve never had the measles. But my husband has. And my daughter could have. So this massive flurry of measles news strikes close to home.

                For the record, my husband got sick in 1989 during what would become a measles epidemic sickening more than 12,000 people in Southern California. At age 26, he spent several days in the intensive care unit with spiking fevers and low oxygen levels. Until the classic measles rash emerged, no one knew what was going on beyond the fact that he was very, very ill. And I should mention, he was vaccinated.

                Yes, he was vaccinated, but my husband was born in the early 1960s and was part of a cohort of kids who received the single recommended dose of MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. In hindsight, this wasn’t enough. In fact, shortly after my husband was discharged from the hospital and as measles cases rapidly spread across the country, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended switching to a 2-dose series for all children, one after the first birthday and one before entering kindergarten. Had my husband received two doses, he probably wouldn’t have landed in an ICU all those years later.

                Flash forward to the early 2000s, when my daughter had a one-in-a-million reaction to the vaccine. Without diving into her personal details, let’s just say 10 days after receiving her MMR, her body declared that I should not give her a second dose without thinking long and hard about it. I read every study I could get my hands on and followed public health scares like the measles outbreak at Disneyland in 2014, which is precisely why I felt completely comfortable vaccinating my son when it was his turn to be protected. The vaccine never scared me – I had no reason for it to, regardless of the fact that my own child had a profound reaction – but the disease did. And each time there was a report of a measles outbreak, I checked my daughter’s blood antibody levels to makes sure that the single dose she had received as an infant would continue to protect her. My one-dose husband and I were not willing to risk a second family ICU stay for the same disease. Nearly 15 years after her first MMR, when the Pacific Northwest and then New York declared public health emergencies because of rapidly spreading measles infections, my daughter got her second dose of the vaccine. Uneventfully.

Today’s emerging measles epidemic reminds us that the power of reputation should never be underestimated. Even though the original modern anti-vaxxer, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was ultimately found to have falsified his own data and so was subsequently stripped of his medical license, fear of the vaccine remained. And how it has grown! As social media emerged as a major parenting information epicenter, pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine parents moved to their respective corners. All it took was a few years and possibly some Russian bots to fan the flames.

Measles isn’t alone in its resurgence or its anti-vax hype. Over the past several years, pockets of pertussis (AKA whooping cough) have popped up across the country among teenagers and adults. This infection looks like a bad cold followed by a cough that seemingly never ends (it’s nickname is The 100 Day’s Cough for a reason); but in an infant, pertussis can be fatal. Influenza is another illness that need not take the toll it does. So far this year, close to 40 million people have caught flu, nearly 600,000 wound up hospitalized and an estimated 55,000 have died… and the flu season isn’t over yet. The flu vaccine isn’t perfect, which is why you’ll hear complaints from people that despite getting the vaccine they still got the infection. But those complaints are coming from live people who survived it – the vast majority of flu deaths occur in people who either didn’t have access to the vaccine or who did, but refuse it.

What’s got me the most down is this: the whole vaccine debate ultimately feels like a social media turf war, with doctors and public health advocates woefully behind in branding and marketing their cause. No longer do Americans seem to value the experience and data presented by public health institutions. Instead, battles are waged on personal fronts across the country. So let me say this to anyone sitting on the vaccine fence: Lest you wonder why doctors like me continue to advocate for vaccines, I promise that not one of us – no one I have ever worked with or studied with – is promoting this path in order to harm your child. Every single one of us works day in and day out with the singular goal of protecting children, not harming them. And we are not blind to the issues around Big Pharma and big profits. But please, I literally beg you, give us some credit for reading the data, understanding the science, and advocating for your children without dollars factoring in. We are neither naïve nor particularly capitalistic. We just want your kids to survive and thrive during childhood.

Just today, the U.S. is reporting 695 measles cases across 22 states, the highest number of cases in this country since the year 2000 when measles was officially declared eradicated. In the last week alone, the number of cases jumped 13% and only four days ago, my home town of Los Angeles declared an outbreak with its first five cases, a number sure to rise. This all started back in November 2018, with one unknowingly infected man. My fingers are seriously crossed that we are not well on our way back to the late-80’s 12,000 figure. When I worked in an office caring for kids, I spent an absurd amount of time talking to parents about vaccines, data, the diseases they protect against (diseases that most parents have never seen firsthand thanks to vaccination), and the fears related to that protection. We need to keep that conversation going, not the one filled with vitriol that simply silos parents into pro- and anti-vax camps.