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Measles is making a comeback across the globe

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

A massive measles outbreak in Africa reflects the wider problem of a resurgence of the childhood disease across the world, including the United States. Health authorities in this country thought the illness was virtually wiped out in 2000, at least in the U.S., but 2011 has seen rates comparable to those of the 1990’s. Measles, it seems, is making a comeback.

The latest outbreak is ravaging parts of Kenya and Ethiopia. At least 17,584 people have contracted measles, and 114 have died in Ethiopia so far this year. A World Health Organization estimate says 2 million Ethiopian children are at risk for contracting the potentially deadly disease. WHO spokesman Tarek Jasarevic also said at least 462 cases of measles, including 11 deaths, have been confirmed among Somali refugee children in the Kenyan refugee complex known as Dadaab.

Poor sanitation and constant population movement in and out of various refugee camps and towns in East Africa is a direct contributor to the spread of the disease, as well as other serious contagious diseases like typhoid fever and cholera. Because East Africa is wracked by drought and violence, vast numbers of people attempt to escape their dire circumstances by migrating elsewhere. These migrations eventually result in refugee compounds and the growth of slums and shantytowns, which are typically not equipped with modern sanitation technology.

Because people travel these days in numbers and frequency unparalleled in history, an outbreak of a contagious disease inevitably affects someone on the other side of the world. The United States has seen 118 cases of measles so far this year. Most of those cases are due to importing the disease from Europe (which may, in turn, been spread from Africa). A contributing factor to the spread of measles is the fact that an increasing number of children are unvaccinated in this country.

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The vaccine which helps protect against measles is the much maligned MMR vaccine (measles-mumps-rubella combo), typically given at 12 to 15 months of age. Many people have been swayed into believing that MMR causes autism, a contention with no scientific basis. Others may have a general unease about vaccines in general and withhold permission to vaccinate their children. Some even believe that a mandatory, government-regulated schedule of vaccinations is too much of an intrusion on the part of the state into our private lives.

Whatever the parents’ stance in this controversial debate, it leaves children vulnerable to many childhood diseases that are easily preventable.

It is true that in many parts of the world, measles is allowed to run its course in the pediatric population – even in some European countries. Also, measles, though unpleasant, is generally harmless. The problem is that a few children will develop complications – some of them life-threatening, such as encephalitis and pneumonia. In other rare cases, measles may attack vital organs and causing lifelong consequences such as blindness, deafness or developmental disability. Even though the chances are small, you wouldn’t want your child to come down with one of these conditions.

Measles can also be very serious in adults who contract the disease but who themselves were never vaccinated or had never gone through the illness.

Click here for the 7 things parents must know about measles.



"Many people have been swayed into believing that MMR causes autism, a contention with no scientific basis." The evidence that you could cite for the above statement is actually debatable.