Infection Report 5: What you really should be worried about
© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD
This week’s posts have all been about infections, new and old—infections newly found, and infections sneaking back. On the one hand, the media is agog with news of Ebola and the mysterious paralysis virus; on the other hand, threats that are far more likely to kill us are being largely ignored.
One infection is on the verge of sneaking back, which is a shame. We had it beaten, and now we’re allowing it to gain a foothold. We’ve got a great way to eradicate measles, but fear and misinformation have led to pro-disease, anti-vaccine sentiment, especially among those white, elite, and wealthy. As we’ve seen, we’re all in this together—so those anti-vaccine enclaves are going to affect all of us.
Measles, itself, is just about the most contagious disease out there. You don’t need to have infected fluid splashed on you (Ebola), and you don’t need to actually even touch a contaminated surface (influenza). All it takes to catch measles is to breathe the same air as someone with the disease. The measles case doesn’t even still have to be in the same room—particles of infectious measles can float around long after the patient has left. Measles can also be transmitted from contaminated surfaces (and even if person A who touches the surface is immune, he can spread it later on to person B.) Measles is so transmissible that 90% of non-immune people who come near someone with measles will themselves get it. To make matters worse: a person with measles starts spreading virus 4 days before they get sick (compare that to Ebola, which has no transmission until symptoms appear.)
And it’s serious, too. Measles is far more than spots. In the USA, about 1 in 20 people with measles require hospitalization for pneumonia; about 1 in 1000 get brain swelling, which can lead to permanent disability. Measles still kills close to 200,000 people, worldwide, every year (about 1 in 4 people with measles die in the developing world.)
While no vaccine is 100% effective, the measles vaccine is pretty darn close. About 95%-100% of people develop lifelong protective antibodies after the two-dose series. Unfortunately, not everyone can be vaccinated—the vaccine isn’t routinely used less than 12 months, and some people with certain health conditions and immune problems can’t safely be vaccinated. Still, when vaccine uptake rates were strong throughout the developed world in the 1990s, there was very little transmission of measles in the United States, just a handful of cases each year.
And now, it’s back. 2014 is going to have by far the most measles cases in 20 years. Though overall rates of vaccination remain strong, some neighborhoods have immunization rates poorer than third-world countries. And cases that begin or are imported into those areas become outbreaks that public health officials struggle to contain.
Think about this: in west Africa, thousands of people are dying of Ebola, for the lack of rubber gloves and other ways to isolate cases. Here, we do have a safe and effective vaccine against a disease that’s far more transmissible—and some people choose not to get it. There, they battle a lack of basic health resources. Here, our enemy is fear and misinformation. That’s what American families really need to worry about.
This week’s posts about infections new and old were meant to contrast the kinds of challenges faced here, versus the challenges faced in most of the rest of the world. We’re so safe and rich that we can afford to be afraid of things that really shouldn’t scare us (vaccines), while the media becomes preoccupied with things that aren’t likely to become a threat here (Ebola.) We don’t get our flu vaccines because “I heard the flu vaccine can give you the flu” – an utter falsehood that is probably contributing to thousands of deaths. At the same time, we guzzle unnecessary antibiotics for viral infections that do us far more harm than good.
Preventing infections is always the best strategy. Wash your hands, stay away from sick people, keep your kids home when they’re ill, and listen to what every legitimate health authority on the planet says: get yourself and your kids vaccinated. As long as we get them, vaccines are one thing you do not have to worry about.
This week’s posts: The Infection Report