The Dangers Of Measles
The UK Epidemic
Although the measles outbreak hasn't yet reached the whole of the UK it seems likely it will get there sooner rather than later. The measles infection began in south Wales and there are now confirmed cases in the north east and north west of England. At the time of writing Scotland does not have any cases of measles. These areas seem to be particularly badly affected because not all children have been vaccinated with the triple vaccine MMR - Measles, Mumps, Rubella - that protects against diseases such as measles.
Why has this happened?
A scientific paper released in 1998 stating the dangers of the MMR vaccination made many parents very nervous about having their child immunised. This scientific paper has since been discredited. In addition some media coverage at the time have been accused of 'scare-mongering' without knowing the facts. This led to many children receiving no vaccine and therefore no immunity. The infamous scientific paper stated that it had found links between the MMR vaccination and autism. Subsequent research carried out by a number of medical researchers found that the research was faulty and no links were found between the vaccination and cases of autism in children.
Because of the scare and the reduction in children being immunised, This has caused a lack of, what doctors call, 'herd immunity'. This is a term that explains that when most of the population are immunised against a particular disease then it tends to give protection to all. Around 95% of a population needs to be immunised before they are safe against measles. At the present time there are many areas of the UK where less than 90% of the population are immunised and it some areas it's as low as 70%. This gives the measles virus ample opportunity to rear its head.
In addition, although the disease has made news headlines over the past week or so, according to the NHS (National Health Service), measles has been on the increase in the UK for a number of years.
What is measles and what are the dangers?
We all tend to get complacent in the 21st century about diseases such as measles. This is a mistake. The diseases that killed thousands of people many decades ago, still have the capacity to cause severe illness and damage as well as death. One fatality in the city of Swansea, Wales is already being investigated for measles being the cause.
Measles is a highly infectious virus that is spread by contact with infected people as well as through droplets when infected people cough or sneeze. The virus can live outside the body for up to two hours, giving it ample time to spread. The virus has been found alive, for example, on door handles, work surfaces and so on. The most common victims of the virus are children between 1 and 4 but anyone can catch it who hasn't been vaccinated.
When a person is infected the virus lives in the mucous of the nose and at the back of the throat. From here is spreads to the rest of the body.
The initial symptoms of the disease are:
- Light sensitivity - often with red eyes.
- grey-white spots in the mouth and throat
- general symptoms similar to a cold
- Rash - usually appears after 2 - 4 days.It tends to start behind the ears, spreading around the head and neck and then to the legs and rest of the body.
The problem with measles is the complications that can arise from being infected by the virus. The most common complications are:
- Diarrhoea and vomiting
- Inner ear infection and inflammation
- Laryngitis - inflammation of the voice box
Less common but more serious complications are:
- Meningitis - an infection of the linings that surround and protect the brain.
- Pneumonia - an inflammation of the lungs.
- Hepatitis - inflammation of the liver.
- Encephalitis - inflammation of brain tissue.
- Thrombocytopenia - a condition where people bleed more than normal. This happens due to a reduction in the numbers blood cells called platelets that help with clotting.
- Bronchitis - inflammation of the main airways of the lungs due to infection.
- Croup - a condition that affects children and involves inflammation of the airways and larynx (voice box).
In very rare cases the measles virus may cause:
- Problems of the heart and nervous system
- SSPE (subacute sclerosing panencephalitis). Thankfully this condition, that affects brain cells, is very rare. When it does occur it usually develops a number of years after a person has had the measles virus. This is a distressing and heartbreaking condition that affects children. It is also progressive, finally leading to death as there is, as yet, no cure. The disease itself causes blockages between brain cells that prevents them communicating with each other. This results in deterioration of everyday thinking and physical ability, finally progressing until the body is unable to sustain life.
- Eye disorders - especially infection of the optic nerve - the main nerve of the eye. This infection leads to optic neuritis - where the nerve becomes inflamed. The condition can lead to partial or total blindness in the eye affected.
The outbreak in Wales and the rest of the UK is a warning to us all not to be complacent about diseases such as measles. Naturally parents are always concerned whether or not immunisation is safe. In the case of MMR however, there is no scientific evidence to show that MMR causes autism or any other long term condition in children.
In addition, when the majority of the population are immunised against viruses such as measles, this also helps to protect the youngest babies from being exposed to the virus - babies have to be at least 12 months old before they can be vaccinated, so those under this age are vulnerable. They are also particularly at risk when, due to lack of 'herd immunity' there are many more opportunities for these babies to become infected.
As we can see from this article, the old diseases are not dead - we have won a few battles but not the war.