You, dear Lifehacker readers, are smart enough to know that measles is bad and that the measles vaccine is good. But there’s a lot of misinformation floating around, especially as the disease flares in Washington, Texas and New York.
Many of these myths started with anti-vaxxers, people with aggressively wrongheaded ideas about what vaccines do. But plenty of regular folks buy into the myths as well — mainly parents faced with their babies’ first vaccinations, who are just trying to figure out how to keep their kids safe.
Anti-vaxxers’ misinformation campaigns feed on ordinary new-parent fears, and their stories get weirder and weirder. Let’s tackle a few of these:
Myth: measles is a harmless childhood disease
It’s true that before there was a vaccine, measles was common: 90 per cent of kids got measles by the time they turned 15. But it was also a dangerous and deadly disease.
This paper from the Journal of Infectious Diseases collects some relevant numbers: in the late 1950s, there was one death from measles for every 1,000 reported cases. Earlier in the century, when nutrition and health care weren’t as good, the rate was more like 26 deaths per 1,000 cases.
So, yes, kids die from measles. They can also develop serious complications. The authors of the paper write that in the 1950s, when deaths were around 450 per year, “[a]s a result of measles virus infections, an average of 150,000 patients had respiratory complications and 4000 patients had encephalitis each year; the latter was associated with a high risk of neurological sequelae and death.”
Myth: measles cures cancer
Duh, no. This one is currently enjoying a boost from Darla Shine, author, blogger, former Fox TV producer, and wife of White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications Bill Shine.
She clarified that she was talking about this story, in which a woman’s cancer went into remission thanks to an experimental treatment featuring a massive dose of measles vaccine.
She links a blog post that links a CNN report, which says: “researchers gave [the patient, Stacy Erholtz] and five other multiple myeloma patients a dose of a highly concentrated, lab-engineered measles virus similar to the measles vaccine. In fact, the dose Erholtz received contained enough of the virus to vaccinate approximately 10 million people.”
So, no, this is not evidence that catching measles or any other childhood disease will “keep you healthy & fight cancer.”
Myth: the measles vaccine is useless
The measles vaccine works really well, but no vaccine is perfect. Since the measles vaccine is 93 per cent effective (or 97 per cent, if you get both recommended doses), a measles outbreak can infect some of the people who got the vaccine.
Myth: anti-vaxxers are only hurting themselves
A person who isn’t vaccinated is susceptible to the disease, but they are also capable of spreading it to others. Remember how we explained that the flu shot isn’t about you, arsehole? The measles vaccine is a more extreme version of this situation.
Measles is wildly contagious. You can walk into an empty room where a person with measles had been, and breathe in some of the virus that they left in the air, and become infected. The average person with measles, in pre-vaccine days, infected 20 others. In a crowded place (remember Disneyland a few years ago?) the situation is even more dire.
If 90 to 95 per cent of people in a population are vaccinated, that should be enough that outbreaks can’t really take hold. But if a lot of unvaccinated people spend time together—in a school where a lot of parents have filed vaccine exemptions, for example — the outbreak can begin there, and have an easier time spreading.
OK, but who gets measles? Unvaccinated kids, sure, who did not choose this fate for themselves. But also people with immune system disorders who can’t safely receive the vaccines. And — this is what should really scare you as a new parent—babies don’t get the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine until they are one year old.
If your infant is in an area with a measles outbreak, or if you’re travelling, you may be able to get an earlier vaccine.
It’s not recommended routinely for everyone because the vaccine just doesn’t work well in babies. When everybody else gets the vaccine, that’s their protection.