When I entered the Navy in 1981, I ran the gauntlet of medical corpsmen with jet injectors giving every inoculation conceivable, including vaccinations for measles, mumps and chickenpox (even though I had those three diseases as a child). Because military members can be deployed anywhere overseas at any time, we were vaccinated for every possible disease.
Imagine my surprise when I read in April 2019 the USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) was quarantined at sea for two months due to an outbreak of mumps onboard. How could this possibly happen with a confined population 100-percent vaccinated?
According to the navy’s Bureau of Medicine, the mumps portion of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine “is the least effective of the three components, providing 88-percent effectiveness after completion of the two-dose series.” In cases like mine, having the diseases as a child has now ensured 100-percent immunity, something vaccines can never provide.
Yet the fact we just experienced our first case of measles in Idaho in 18 years empirically demonstrates that the MMR vaccine has been effective in minimizing the disease. I highlight the facts above, not to promote anti-vaxxer sentiments nor to downplay the seriousness of the diseases, but to point out that inoculations are not perfect solutions. According to the Center for Disease Control, a single dose of the MMR vaccine is 93-percent effective at preventing the measles. Two doses raise that effectiveness to 97 percent. Measles is so contagious that eradication by “herd immunity” requires a 90-95-percent worldwide vaccination rate.
The two recent outbreaks in Moscow were due to children being exposed while traveling abroad. One child was under 12 months old (too young to receive the MMR vaccine) and the other who had been given the first dose (93-percent effective) was not yet old enough for the second dose. Neither case was due to anti-vaxxer sentiments.
I remember having the measles as a child. It was like a bad case of the flu but with spots. My experience was similar to the 1969 episode of The Brady Bunch when all six kids (and Alice) came down with the measles: the family quarantined the kids at home, and it became an excuse to stay inside and watch TV. It was never a fearful or hysterical time.
My experience with the measles is probably similar to most before the vaccine became available in 1963. My parents discovered which neighborhood kids had contracted measles and purposely made sure I was exposed. Until the chickenpox vaccine came out in 1995, these times were commonly referred to as “pox parties.” This was the normal way of combating childhood diseases since they were much more dangerous to an adult.
Most people my age are bewildered by the current reaction to the recent measles outbreak. The news treats measles like it was the bubonic plague. Never before was there the current hysteria that we hear.
I would like to petition for a more rational perspective concerning measles. According to the CDC, there have been 917 cases of measles thus far in 2019. Also, the CDC states, the most recent death in the U.S. attributed to the measles was in 2015 due to pneumonia, a side effect of measles.
Putting this into perspective, last year in the United States 36,000 people died of the flu (www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/10-flu-myths). Seldom do you read in the newspapers about anyone dying of the flu. But when someone contracts measles, it makes national headlines (and in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, it is front-page-above-the-fold news).
I have read accounts of parents in Portland who refuse to take their kids out in public for fear that they will contract measles and die ( www.thedailybeast.com/parents-are-at-war-over-measles-outbreak). In the U.S., you have a better chance of dying in a car crash (3,287 deaths a day) or being struck by lightning than of dying of measles (once in four years).
So why are people panicking about the measles? Everyone over the age of 55 I have talked to thinks that it is blown out of proportion. All of us had the measles as children (even had parties to get it), survived it fine and are now immune to the disease. However, people in their 20s and 30s treat measles like some exotic disease, and the media hype feeds the fear.
Where do we go from here? A 90-95-percent vaccination rate in the U.S. is not sufficient. Unless we want to forbid nonimmunized Americans from traveling overseas, and forbid nonimmunized foreigners from coming into the U.S., we are going to have to learn to tolerate the measles, but without the attitude of fear and panic that is currently promoted.
Dale Courtney and his family moved to Moscow 20 years ago after he retired from the U.S. nuclear submarine force. He spends his spare time chasing his grandchildren around the Palouse.