Efforts to immunize millions of children against malaria, measles and polio that have been so successful in the United States don’t help kids at all in some countries.
The World Health Organization is now advocating for countries around the world to immunize 1 billion people a year, because of the seeming paucity of global programs to vaccinate children against preventable diseases. These would include illnesses like measles and rubella that are high on the list of causes of death of children under 5.
That should be something governments here in the United States should be advocating, too. If we can have leaders in the Senate speak up and publicly approve of needle-exchange programs that increase the prevalence of tuberculosis, we should be taking the same measures for preventing another preventable disease: measles.
Almost all my co-workers recently were infected with the measles. This did not happen on the street or at an airport. A family from Utah traveled to visit family in Grand Rapids, Mich., and then to Ann Arbor, Mich., and returned home. Several days after the couple arrived, their son was diagnosed with measles and ended up hospitalized. A few days after that, a toddler in Utah also became infected.
My friends and I came down with the measles before any vaccines, and we got to know the parents of those children — both from Utah and the kid in Michigan. It was a disappointing and stressful time for them and their families. And that’s true. As many of us can remember, cases of this virus with symptoms like fever, cough and redness in the eyes happened more frequently in the ’70s and ’80s. Some of us did not know anyone who had been infected. Many of us had measles as a child. Now, with better awareness and vaccination, fewer people get sick from this virus.
Unfortunately, most of these children infected here in the United States had never received measles shots. For many of them, they were waiting to catch up on missed vaccines, but ended up infecting someone else. A global rise in the number of kids who haven’t received the doses they need is going to create more of these cases. And measles can cause long-term complications in those who survive the initial outbreak.
But just like all the other reasons for receiving vaccinations, just getting kids in the habit of getting the shots will pay off. They will most likely not get sick if they are fully vaccinated. And since they’ll have no risk of them falling ill from measles again when they are vaccinated, the vaccine will be provided to far more people than if they had been vaccinated from scratch. The severity of measles after a first infection is much greater than that after an initial measles infection that is only accompanied by fever and runny nose, so at this point in time we should start with smallpox immunizations and then work up to the rubella.
Of course, the one thing that measles vaccines do not do is stop others from infecting people. So we need to start spreading the word about the importance of preventing measles from spreading. Parents who are reluctant about sending their children to schools or changing neighborhoods should make sure the kids are vaccinated. Medical doctors and school nurses should also do their part to promote vaccination, and homeschooling families should have information about measles.
Getting kids vaccinated is not rocket science. Almost everyone has seen the series of nine inoculations for meningitis. We should follow the same procedure with vaccinations against two diseases that kill tens of thousands of children every year.