Measles is a truly miserable virus. The disease itself, once you are infected, makes you feel awful, many times worse than the flu.
As a pediatrician in Seattle in the 1990s, I occasionally saw cases of this disease, and I will never forget them. One patient, a 5-year-old boy, had a high fever, a rash covering his entire body, and red, watery eyes that were so sensitive to light he had to stay in semidarkness. He felt miserable and irritable, and he cried all the time.
All I could do for my young patient was recommend rest and watch for signs that the disease was not getting worse. There is no treatment for measles. We have no antiviral medications, no cure. Once someone is infected, medical science is essentially helpless against this potentially deadly illness.
What we do have is a very good, safe and effective vaccine. If we immunize enough people, we can create a shield of protection across communities. Unfortunately, in the U.S., that shield is now riddled with holes.
Last week, the U.S. reached a regrettable new milestone in its fight against measles, as reports are being made of the 681st measles case. This makes 2019 the record holder for measles since the U.S. declared the disease eradicated in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Measles has been diagnosed in 22 states. As measles cases continue to climb, so do the chances we will see someone die from measles.
We need to fight this epidemic at every level, starting now, before that happens. We must shore up our shield of protection. To do that, we need a multipronged approach.
First, the American Academy of Pediatrics calls on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to launch a comprehensive strategy to increase parents’ confidence in vaccines, address barriers to vaccination, and improve access to vaccines in all communities. We need a national strategy to drive immunization rates high enough to achieve community immunity in every city and state.
Second, we must surround parents with the information they need to make the decision to vaccinate. Pediatricians are doing all they can. My colleagues spend hours talking one-on-one with families who are making the choice to immunize their children. Within these close, trusting relationships, pediatricians try to be a guidepost for parents. But every day we see parents struggle through the murky waters of myth, misinformation and fear.
That’s why we need the help of companies like Google, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest to elevate evidence-based information on immunizations in the online communities where parents are gathering.
Finally, states can take steps to increase immunization rates. California enacted a law in 2015 that makes it harder to obtain a nonmedical exemption to school-entry immunization requirements, and we hope to see other states follow suit.
In Washington, we are awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature on a bill to prohibit personal exemptions specifically for the MMR vaccine. In 2019, legislation has been introduced in more than 10 states to restrict or eliminate nonmedical exemptions.
No vaccine protects 100% of the time; we depend on many people being vaccinated to protect those for whom the vaccine doesn’t work as well, or those who can’t be vaccinated. Children are more vulnerable when they attend schools with low immunization rates.
Parents should have access to the immunization rates at their children’s schools or child-care centers, so they can understand the risk. All parents should be empowered to protect their children where they live, learn and play.
We stand on the cusp of a new era in infectious diseases in this country, one where a disease we had largely eradicated has again gained a foothold. It’s still possible to contain this disease, but only if we act quickly.
Let’s not watch more children suffer. As a pediatrician and a parent, I implore you to choose to protect your loved ones with a very safe, effective vaccine. If given the choice, no child would choose the measles.