Dear Parents, Let’s Talk About Measles

Colin McRoberts. Vaccine superhero.

Dear parents,

You're probably aware that measles has been in the news a lot lately. We need to talk about it again, even if you feel like it's old news, because of Livia, Rhett, and Cami.

The disease that was virtually eradicated 15 years ago in the United States is spreading in pockets around the country with over 84 infected individuals in 14 states so far this year.

Image Credit: Jennifer Simon. This is Livia. An unvaccinated child with measles potentially exposed her to the disease, so she spent one of her first six months in quarantine. Used with permission of her mother.

Unlike Ebola, measles is very easy to catch. It can infect a child if he or she breathes in a room where a sick person coughed or sneezed within the last two hours. And because people are contagious four days before they have any sign of a rash, it's often spread by people who have no idea that they (or their kids) are infected. 90% of unvaccinated children will become infected if they're exposed to someone with measles. (You can find more information here).

This means that the disease can spread rapidly once it has a foothold in the population. Last year, for example, an outbreak among an Amish community infected 383 people. This year, most of the infections so far are linked to exposure at Disneyland, and there is concern that the number of outbreaks may continue to rise. 

And measles is a very serious disease. 30% of people infected—particularly children under the age of 5 and adults over the age of 20—will develop complications. One or two children out of every 1,000 who contract measles will die from it, and about the same number will develop encephalitis that can cause seizures or mental retardation (See the CDC's list of complications here). It's very telling that older people, who have lived in a time before modern vaccines were developed, who remember what it was like to have outbreaks of diseases like measles and polio, overwhelmingly support vaccination.

(Some people, arguing from ideology rather than an understanding of the facts, will tell you that measles is no big deal to claim their fifteen minutes of fame. They can’t acknowledge how harmful measles can be without also acknowledging how dangerous their advice is. That gives them a very heavy bias to believe that measles is just one of those things kids have to suffer through to grow up. The facts are clear, and measles can kill.)

But you know this, and you're trying to do the right thing. You feed your children healthy food, encourage them to exercise, and like the huge majority of parents in America today, you get your children vaccinated as part of their healthy lifestyles.

Unfortunately, some people are choosing not to vaccinate their children. As a consequence there are little pockets of unvaccinated children throughout the country.

You know this is a problem, because they could potentially infect children too young to receive vaccines.

Like Livia.

They could potentially infect children and adults with weakened immune systems who can’t receive the vaccine.

Like Rhett.

They could potentially infect children and adults for whom the vaccine doesn’t work quite right for various reasons.

Like Cami.

If you’re angry about this, you’re justified in feeling that way. Goodness knows that there are enough dangers in the world that you can’t protect your child from. Measles (and mumps, rubella, HPV, influenza, pertussis, chickenpox, tetanus, hepatitis a and bis something we can protect our children from. And it may make you angry that some parents refuse to do what they should to prevent them in their children, thereby putting the population at risk.

But however much it might make you feel better to post angry comments online about this, it’s counterproductive. That’s the most frustrating thing of all—no amount of scientific information will convince them otherwise, and people who are sitting on the fence with this debate may join up with the anti-vaxxers if they identify with them.

So what can you do?

Talk to other parents.

Parents don’t vaccinate their children for many different reasons. For some, it’s lack of access to good healthcare, and healthcare information. For others, it’s a part of a lifestyle. A few parents won’t change their minds no matter what. They have been lied to, and they’ve bought into those lies. They’ve even found a few unscrupulous doctors happy to profit by bolstering their opinions. These parents won’t change their minds, because that would mean that they’ve been wrong about their understanding of how the world works, and that they’ve actually been harming their children through their beliefs when they meant to protect them. If you put yourself in their shoes, I’m sure you can understand how difficult changing your mind under these circumstances would be. However wrong they are, it’s counterproductive to keep arguing with them or call them stupid—because they aren't!—and it’s a waste of your time.

But most of the anti-vaccine rhetoric is coming from only a tiny group of people. They don’t speak for you. Most parents vaccinate on-time, just like you do and just like pediatricians do. It’s very important that you make your decision to do so public and visible, and your reasons for doing so clear.  In that way, you may reach parents who are sitting on the fence; they have some concerns about vaccines, but they’re not totally committed to the anti-vaccine movement.

Understand that you do have the power to change these parent's minds if you talk to them with patience and understanding.  Let them know that you vaccinate yourselves and your children not only to protect your family, but to protect other families. Listen to their fears without shouting at them. Let them know that you understand their fears, but share with them the huge amount of scientific research–done by physicians and scientists who are also parents– that has tested vaccine safety and has shown you that vaccines are safe and effective.

Believe it or not, you have a great deal of power to bring about change. These playground conversations and shared stories are the most effective way of improving parents’ understanding of the benefits of vaccines.

Do it for your kids, and theirs, and Livia and Rhett and Cami.

Image Credit. Colin McRoberts. Healthy and happy to help take care of our community by fully vaccinating.

Note: The content of this article was written by Dr. Jennifer Raff for her blog, Violent Metaphors. It is being rehosted here with permission. You can click on the above hyperlink to view the original and engage in the lively discussion in the comments section. 

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