Is measles really that serious?


Today’s children are at more of an advantage when it comes to their health than in the past, as long as they have clean drinking water, a balanced diet of proteins, fruit and vegetables and a safe home.

Additionally, the work of scientists to study viruses and infectious diseases and discover how to block their actions in the human body help to keep our little ones healthy.

Since the measles vaccine became available in the mid 50s (a time when vaccine fever was at its height and “cures” for a number of viral infections were on everybody’s lips), measles was included in the vaccine-preventable disease category in medical circles. Since the early 90s in South Africa, vaccination campaigns have improved substantially. This has prevented many outbreaks of this common childhood illness.

Why do we still have measles then?

But vaccination campaigns are not always successful. In 1998 a Dr Wakefield published a paper claiming that MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shots increased the incidence of autism.

Read: Possible signs of autism

As a result, immunisation rates in the UK and Ireland dropped sharply, and to the detriment of children when the number of deaths and severe permanent injuries increased and outbreaks grew severe.

Manipulated evidence used in this article has since been declared null and void, and scientific consensus today is
that no evidence links the vaccine to the development of autism, and that the vaccine’s benefits far outweigh any risks.

In South Africa, our problems are different. We have a huge population of teenaged mothers who are limited by poverty and a lack of education to understand how important it is to take their babies to the clinic for their full set of vaccinations. On the other side of the fence, many relatively well-to-do mothers choose not to immunise their babies for fear of the side effects and because they misunderstand vaccinations.

Younger parents who are living with HIV face challenges regarding health and maintaining a standard of living.

HIV prevention and TB re-emergence has had to take centre stage, leading to less focus on immunisations. But South Africa cannot afford to allow measles and its complications to be neglected. It’s for this reason that May and June have been earmarked by the Department of Health as vaccination months for polio and measles for all children under the age of five.

Alos read: Talking to your kids about HIV and AIDS

Immunisations will be available at all clinics and nurses will be visiting nursery schools and day mothers. Be sure that your children get their booster shots.

But my child has had all his shots...

Disease outbreaks commonly occur in communities where immunisation programmes are incomplete or inadequate – and South Africa is regarded as a such a developing country.

Nationwide campaigns to immunise all children under the age of five on specific dates ensures that all children are covered with a protective blanket should an outbreak of measles occur.

Even if children who have been vaccinated get the disease, it will not be life threatening as symptoms will be less severe. It’s also been found that when children are re-vaccinated when they’re slightly older, they are better protected.

Why is measles called a serious illness?

Measles is spread by the paramyxovirus which thrives in the mouth and respiratory system. It spreads in the air, making it very contagious – especially in the early stages of the illness.

The incubation period may last from one to three weeks, and can then quickly spread among children at crèches and nursery schools.

Measles is a notifiable disease, which means that it must be reported to the Department of Health by the doctor or nurse who makes the diagnosis to alert healthcare practitioners of the possibility of an outbreak. The seriousness of measles lies in its ability to spread far and wide, affecting vast groups of people.

Must read: It's wise to immunise

Measles is usually rare in babies younger than six months. Babies receive antibodies from the mother during pregnancy, and breastfeeding helps to maintain these antibodies. Adults usually have an immunity that was established in their childhood.

The population group at risk for measles is schoolgoing children, and to some extent, teenagers. It’s for this reason that preschoolers are the ideal candidates to be immunised against it.

Symptoms of measles

The child will be miserable and feel ill with a fever and may have itchy eyes. Koplik spots (named after Henry Koplik, an American paediatrician) will confirm a measles diagnosis. These are small whitish spots within a red spot on the inside of the cheek and lips, and can be seen before the rash appears all over the body – usually starting on the tummy.

Once diagnosed, measles simply has to take its course, treating the symptoms and preventing complications. The child must be kept away from other children. Fever reducing medications and tepid sponging help to control fever.

Some children may be sensitive to light (photophobia). Some children may have diarrhoea. Mouth ulcers and a sore throat may stop your child from eating. Encourage rehydration by offering smoothies and liquidised fruit in jelly.

Children can be given extra doses of vitamins, especially vitamin A.

Immunised children with a mild case of measles recover quickly without complications. But symptoms of a worsening condition include earache and headaches, which should be treated as a secondary infection as they could lead to serious complications such as encephalitis or pneumonia.

Malnourished children may take months to recover with complications such as bronchiectasis that could lead to chronic health problems.

Children who aren’t getting better need to be tested for TB. Severe secondary infections to the brain could lead to permanent mental and physical handicap. Fortunately this is rare.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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