DEAR DOCTOR K:
Should I vaccinate my daughter against measles?
I was born before there was a measles vaccine, and I got the measles. Like most kids, I had a rash and a fever. (See the feature image for a photo of the measles rash.) And, like most kids, within one or two weeks I was back to normal.
I remember, though, that my mother seemed more worried about me than she had been when I caught other viral illnesses. She knew three things I didn’t.
First, measles could sometimes cause very serious illness (blindness, brain and lung infections), even death. I learned later that a boy down the street had developed permanent brain damage from measles several months before.
Second, there was nothing she and my father could do to protect my sister and me. There was no vaccine.
Third, measles was very common. In the United States each year, at least 500,000 kids got measles. Of those, nearly 50,000 were sick enough to be hospitalized. About 1,000 became permanently injured and about 500 died.
The measles vaccine — called MMR, for measles, mumps and rubella (German measles) — was introduced in 1968, and parents breathed a sigh of relief. Most kids got the measles shot, and by the 1990s measles had been eliminated in the U.S. Now and then a child coming to the U.S. from elsewhere would get measles, but it wouldn’t spread because kids in the U.S. were protected by the vaccine. Then things began to change.
In 2014, there were 644 reported cases of measles in the United States. That’s because for about 20 years, a growing number of parents have been reluctant to have their children get the recommended vaccines. Some states allow refusals for personal or religious reasons.
Vaccines do two important things. First, they protect your child against disease. Second, when your child gets a measles shot, it not only protects your child; it also protects all the kids who come into contact with your child. And the measles vaccine is safe.
The measles vaccine is more than 95 percent effective, but it’s not perfect. If it’s not perfect, how did we eliminate measles? When nearly all the kids got the vaccine, in the United States, a country of 320 million people, there were 0-80 cases a year. That’s close to eliminating measles. But now we’re going backward.
Should parents have a right not to let their kids get a vaccine? This is a free country. We have a right to do and say a lot of things that others might not like. But my right to extend my arm and fist stops at the tip of your nose.
I would ask this question of parents choosing not to have their kids get the measles vaccine: Should your neighbor have a right to refuse to give her kids the measles vaccine, if that puts your kids at risk?
I strongly advise you to get your daughter vaccinated with the MMR vaccine.