Measles is a very contagious disease. It’s usually something that people get over, without permanent damage, although complications are not all that uncommon. Deaths are relatively rare, but they do happen. At one time, a country like the United States would expect to experience a few dozen deaths from measles, mostly in children, per year.
That began to change when an effective vaccine was developed in 1968. It took some time for the vaccine to proliferate across the industrial world, and measles outbreaks continued into the 1980′s. However by the late 1990′s, measles had become an uncommon condition in most of the developed world. It did not go away completely, but by the turn of the 21st century, most public health officials considered measles to be a problem of the past and efforts on further eradication focused on third world countries, where low vaccine rates allowed it to flourish.
That began to change, however, as more parents started to buy into the propaganda of an increasingly well funded and vocal anti-vaccine movement. It started with claims that vaccine caused autism. Then they began to talk about all manner of “vaccine injury,” which, in most cases, was a complete fabrication. Yet the fear of vaccines took hold enough for many parents to leave their children unvaccinated. Many became so sold on the idea they would work to spread the message to others.
What happened is exactly what you would expect to happen. A disease as contagious as measles once again had a population capable of sustaining an outbreak and that’s what happened. In the United States, a single incident, where a number of persons were exposed in Disneyland resulted in a multi-state outbreak that has now spread to several states. The numbers keep climbing and are now well over one hundred and fifty, although its likely that far more have not been reported.
Of course, the US is not alone. Similar outbreaks and increases in rate of measles have swept the industrial world. Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany have also faced the prospect of decreasing vaccine rates leading to measles outbreaks. Other outbreaks have happened in the Netherlands, New Zealand, Italy, Singapore and New Zealand.
In many places, vaccine refusal has just begun to reach the critical number necessary for full scale outbreaks to be sustained in the population. This has resulted in some very dramatic upticks in the rate of the diseases. For example, Turkey reported 7,132 cases in 2014, up from 700 in 2013. In New Zealand, 2014 saw 281 cases reported, while only 8 cases had been reported in 2013.
Up until now, no lives had been lost to the outbreaks. There are a few reasons for this. One is that vaccines are still reasonably common and therefore, the outbreaks have been small compared to those of decades ago. Another reason is that, when someone gets measles, every effort is made to prevent them from dying.
Serious complications, complications that could even cause death, are not uncommon from measles. But when they do happen, the health system springs into action and usually manages to save the lives of those infected. For example, about 15% of those infected in the recent US outbreak ended up in the hospital. When this happens, they are monitored, fluids and fever reducers are given, antibiotics are called for if there are secondary infections and doctors monitor their recovery. Some will develop pneumonia and require breathing assistance, such as supplemental oxygen. Vitamin A may be given by IV, as there is some evidence of decreased mortality when high vitamin A levels are maintained.
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