Last week, my four daughters, along with a handful of their friends, were scheduled to travel for a short but much-anticipated trip to Mexico for my oldest daughter’s birthday.
It was a great plan until measles was reported at Los Angeles International Airport.
One of those daughters, Sarah – not the birthday girl, but the mother of a young infant less than 6 months of age – was forced to make a difficult decision. Normally, traveling to Mexico is perfectly fine for a healthy child of Teddy’s age, but hearing that a case of measles had been reported at LAX ultimately put the kibosh on her travel plans. For the sake of safety, the pediatrician who cares for Teddy reluctantly and sadly recommended that Sarah cancel her travel plans.
The measles epidemic that seemed to be a continent away had found her home and knocked on the front door.
We all know in a vague way that behind every health statistic and news brief there are people suffering. For those who develop measles, there is the obvious discomfort of being sick. But there are many others who are impacted, too.
Already, the number of individuals who have been personally affected by the worst measles epidemic in 25 years in the United States is staggering. Think about the hundreds of students who were quarantined at Southern California’s colleges and universities over the past week. Then consider the thousands of individuals and families who missed important life events like weddings, anniversaries and once-in-a-lifetime vacations because of this outbreak.
Those who refuse to have their children vaccinated due to unproven concerns that measles vaccination has something to do autism need to understand that their “personal decisions” have significant ramifications in the communities they live in and, sometimes, in places far removed.
They should also know the story of measles. Before the licensure of the measles vaccine in 1963, there were up to 4 million cases of measles each year in the U.S.
That’s right, 4 million!
Of those 4 million who suffered from the disease, nearly 50,000 were sick enough to be admitted to the hospital, 1,000 developed measles encephalitis (a serious brain infection) and, tragically, between 400 and 500 died annually of the disease.
These are incomprehensible numbers and underline the mortality and the morbidity that measles vaccination has prevented. Without question, the advent of this highly effective and safe vaccine is one of the great success stories in the medical world. In fact, it was so successful that medical authorities declared in 2000 that measles had been eradicated from the U.S.
None of the parents who refused to vaccinate their sons and daughters knew that my daughter was going to have a birthday bash this spring, nor could they have imagined that their private vaccine decisions were going to negatively impact thousands of others. But what they did or, in this case, what they did not do, has done just that.
My hope is that there’s a silver lining to all of this. Maybe we needed to recall what has been overcome and maybe the 2019 epidemic is our reminder that measles still lurks when people get lax.
And perhaps those who are not vaccinating their children against measles will gain an understanding of the misery this viral villain causes, and then come to fear the disease and not the vaccine that prevents it.
Maybe then, they’ll change their minds.
Robert C. Hamilton, M.D., has more than three decades of experience as a pediatrician and is the founder of Pacific Ocean Pediatrics in Santa Monica. He’s also the proud father of six children and is grandpa to eight.