Why measles is so deadly and vaccination so important

Why measles is so deadly and vaccination so important

Getting measles is not just a simple virus you catch as a child. An infection can be life-threatening for both children and adults.

The first telltale sign someone has measles is a widespread itchy red rash. The spots are initially visible behind the ears, on the neck or head. Three days before visible signs appear, the virus has peaked in the body. The infected person is contagious, usually without even knowing it. For a reliable diagnosis, patients suspected of having the virus need to have the antibodies in their blood tested.

The measles virus is transmitted directly through the air in the form of very fine droplets of saliva or mucus — usually from coughing or sneezing. But, they can also be passed on simply when speaking to someone in close proximity.

Measles is highly contagious. Each contagious person infects around another 15 healthy people. Humans are the only natural hosts of the measles virus. 

Measles is contagious even before patients show visible signs of the virus

Often unpredictable

About 14 days after the initial infection, patients get a fever and start coughing. At that point, the red rash starts to itch.

To alleviate these symptoms, doctors usually administer medication. Patients may also get a middle ear infection, pneumonia or have severe diarrhea. In the worst case, diarrhea can lead to dehydration and ultimately death. There is no specialized treatment for measles. The body has to fight the infection itself.

Measles can cause meningitis, which can lead to severe brain damage and mental disability. According to Germany‘s main public health body, the Robert Koch Institute, measles encephalitis occurs in one in every 1,000 infections. One in five of these cases is fatal. Such complications do not necessarily occur during the original bout of the disease; they can occur years later. 

Vaccination is the best protection

Many parents refuse to vaccinate their children because they fear serious side effects. Some assume it is better for their children to be infected with the virus so their bodies can build up anti-bodies. For a while, measles parties were popular.

Parents would send healthy children to play with other children who had the virus in the hope they too might become infected. Parents who did this were often convinced that exposure to the virus strengthened their child‘s defenses if and when they got measles. 

The only effective defense against measles is immunization

Experts, however, are convinced this is not the case. False claims and beliefs contribute to vaccination fatigue. The myth there is a connection between the measles vaccination and autism is just that — a myth — one doctors have debunked many times over.

The measles vaccine includes two shots of attenuated measles viruses. The Permanent Vaccination Commission (STIKO) of the Robert Koch Institute recommends measles vaccinations in combination with inoculations for mumps and rubella. The vaccinations should take place just after a child turns one. Only then can parents ensure their child is protected from the dangerous virus.

Vaccination target missed

The WHO was committed to eradicating measles worldwide by 2020. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Portugal, Slovakia and Slovenia are the only countries to have achieved this goal so far.

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