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Autism Fears Sparks a Rise in Measles Putting Infants at Risk

Tim Boyer's picture

A fear of autism from vaccinations is believed to be the cause of a record number of 150 cases of measles in the U.S. this year. The reason for the unwarranted autism fear is due to a lie in the form of a faulted study by a scientist in 1998 that suggested that vaccines were the cause of the rise in autism in the U.S. The result of the study has led to an increasing trend in the number of parents refusing to have their children vaccinated. The tragedy of this is that while measles is one of the most easily preventable diseases, there is no cure. Once contracted, it is a watch-and-wait scenario with treatment limited to alleviating symptoms with fluids and painkillers. Infants, elderly people and those with compromised immune systems may become severely ill with measles and die or suffer lifelong disability.

Measles is the world’s most contagious disease. It is typically a childhood disease and is caused by a viral infection. Signs and symptoms of measles include cough, runny nose, inflamed eyes, sore throat, fever and a characteristic red, blotchy rash on the skin. Spread of the virus is primarily through airborne droplets from nasal secretions and is among the four most common causes of childhood death worldwide. The word measles is derived from the 14th-century Arabic word miser, which means “the unhappiness of lepers,” and has been referred to in the past as “the little leprosy.” Its spread in the New World with the arrival of early explorers during the 16th-century led to epidemics that scholars today still argue over the extent of the number of deaths of Native Americans that resulted. On the conservative side, these estimates range in number from a few to several million.

Why measles proved to be so deadly to the early Native Americans is credited to four probable reasons:

The first reason is that measles is less deadly with children than with adults who have never been previously exposed to the virus. When a child contracts measles and lives, he will be immune for the rest of his life. When an adult without immunity to measles contracts measles, it is often fatal.

The second reason is that the European explorers had already faced a number of plagues and diseases, which acted as a selective force toward a genetic resistance to other viral diseases. The early Native Americans had no such history that would allow a survival of the fittest type of selection.

The third reason is related to the second reason. The gene pool of the early Native American was relatively shallow; and therefore, what would kill one, would kill many if not almost all.

The fourth and final reason is that the early Native Americans had no concept for the importance of isolating a sick individual from the rest. When one got sick, presumably visitors came and went and became infected as well, and then in turn infected others.

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Over the years following, many people—both red and white—continued to die in the thousands yearly from measles in the U.S. In 1912 it was recorded that measles claimed approximately 12,000 victims in the U.S. It wasn’t until 1954 that the measles virus was isolated in a laboratory at Harvard University, followed by another nine years before a measles vaccine was introduced.

Measles today
Up to this past decade, the relative incidence of measles in the U.S was practically eradicated in historical comparison. When cases did occur they typically could be traced to an immigrant family or foreign visitor who had not been immunized.

The problem today is that measles appears to be making a comeback that may result in a significant number of what should be preventable illnesses and deaths. The root of the problem—as explained by Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic—is that unfounded fears of vaccines have prompted a growing number of parents to not have their children immunized against measles. The source of the unfounded fears originated in a research paper printed in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet that made a claim of associating vaccines as a possible cause for the rise in autism the past few decades. The author of the paper, Andrew Wakefield, M.D., was later found to have produced fraudulent data and the article was subsequently retracted. However, it was too late. The damage had already been done and a movement sprung forth led by celebrities telling the public that they would not have their children vaccinated and neither should they.

"A rising portion of the population is deciding not to immunize their children because of this controversy, and these children are now susceptible to the measles virus," says Dr. Poland, Mary Lowell Leary Professor of Medicine and director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group. "The results have been devastating," Dr. Poland says. "The campaign against the vaccine has caused great harm to public health across multiple nations, even though it has no scientific basis. There have been over 20 studies, spanning two decades, conducted in several countries. Not one has found scientific evidence of a connection between autism spectrum disorders and MMR vaccine."

The risk to the American public is that if measles is allowed to return to its former infamy, approximately one person in every three thousand infected will die. According to Dr. Poland, members of the medical field, their patients, the news media and the public need to be educated about research that has been done that will allay any fears that there is a causal link between the measles shot and autism.

Why vaccination matters
The significance of a public re-education program cannot be overstated. While some may feel that the anti-vaccine population is relatively small and will eventually run its course as a fad, the real fear is that infants born today will become infected. The measles shot is part of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine that protects our children against infection. What many do not realize is that the MMR shot is not given to infants until they are at least 12-months-old. This places today’s infants at an unnecessary risk of illnesses such as pneumonia, permanent hearing loss, encephalitis…and possibly death.

Infants are particularly susceptible to catching measles because of the many trips they make to public clinics the first year of their lives. For those who have never seen or experienced measles, the CDC has published a true story about one family’s experience with a disease they never thought would happen to them. You can find this story at http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/measles/downloads/dis-measles-color-office.pdf and decide for yourself whether your infant is as safe as you believe.

Source: MMR Vaccine and Autism: Vaccine Nihilism and Postmodern Science, Gregory A. Poland, MD; doi: 10.4065/mcp.2011.0467 Mayo Clinic Proceedings September 2011 vol. 86 no. 9 869-871