The Measles Epidemic: Is Vaccination The Only Alternative?

Friday Feb 6 | BY |
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Last week, one of my patients from Southern California, a thoughtful single mother of two boys 8 and 10 years old, emailed me a frantic note confessing that she hadn’t vaccinated her kids.
Had she done the wrong thing?

The recent measles outbreak in California at Disneyland has a lot of people concerned.

But is a condition involving a fever and rash really that big a deal?

Let’s put it into perspective. As of January 30, 2015, more than 100 people in the United States have been confirmed with measles, including 91 in California. At least 58 of these were linked to an outbreak that began at Disneyland in December.

“Most of the kids made sick in the Disney outbreak had not been vaccinated,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters.

But, where’s the proof? What does “most of” mean? Do we know exactly how many of the 58 kids that got sick were vaccinated?

Even if the most of the infected were unvaccinated, which included at least six kids who were too young for the shots as well as anti-vaxxer parents who were against getting them, I want to know the exact number and ages. Wouldn’t you?

Six of the California cases got their MMR shot—and still managed to get infected. What’s more puzzling is that all but two of them had gotten at least two doses, the standard recommendation.

No deaths have been reported in connection with the current measles outbreak.

Where’s the disconnect? We’re panicked by a common illness. Yet we responded too late with too little to the Ebola epidemic that killed tens of thousands in Africa and that easily threatened Europe and North America.

One Parent’s MMR Dilemma

Last week, one of my patients from Southern California, a thoughtful single mother of two boys 8 and 10 years old, emailed me a frantic note confessing that she hadn’t vaccinated her kids. She was worried, and feeling guilty. Were they now at high risk for getting seriously sick? Had she done the wrong thing?

Not likely, I emailed back.

I wrote that the CDC reports several hundred cases of measles every year. California typically sees about 60 cases a year. The Disneyland outbreak hasn’t triggered widespread infection. Though highly contagious, you can’t catch measles if you’re not exposed. And there is little chance of that, because as a common disease, measles is 99% eliminated in the United States—at least for now—because of universal vaccination.

I explained that most likely, a foreign visitor brought the Disneyland measles outbreak to the U.S. Health officials have yet to find “patient zero,” though, that adult or child who triggered the Disneyland outbreak.

What Is Measles?

Measles, medically termed “Rubeola” because of the characteristic red rash, is a common viral infection of the respiratory and immune systems, and skin. A family of viruses, morbillivirus, causes measles and there are 23 known subtypes. It spreads fast when it goes airborne. Others get infected when sick people cough and sneeze into the air, but it takes 7-14 days after exposure to show symptoms.

Once infected, you get a high fever, a hacking cough, and feel very tired—similar to the symptoms of the flu. But you also get spots in the mouth and the well-known pinpoint rash that starts on the face and then spreads to cover most of the body.

The measles virus is extremely contagious, infecting about 90% of everyone exposed to someone else with measles. Once you’ve had it, you retain immunity for life.

In the recent past, and still occurring in underdeveloped countries, measles was one of the leading causes of death among young children. The World Health Organization reports that worldwide, there are close to 150,000 deaths associated with measles each year.

As a common childhood infection, most kids recover quickly without lasting effects. If you don’t get measles when you’re little, it can be a serious infection for teenagers and young adults. In pregnant women, there’s a 20% chance that infection may cause birth defects.

There is no specific medical treatment or natural cure for measles except time. It runs its course in a few weeks. About 30% of those infected suffer some sort of complication to the disease, ranging from minor symptoms (diarrhea, ear infections) to severe consequences (pneumonia and sometimes seizures as a result of swelling in the brain).

In the decade prior to the introduction of the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) combination vaccine in the United States, it’s estimated that more than three million people got the measles each year.

According to the Oxford Journals, in 1962, measles was considered a universal infectious disease. As public health improved and nutrition got better, complications and deaths from measles dropped dramatically. Since MMR reached widespread use, measles cases in the U.S. have been reduced by almost 100%.

Measles Vaccine Dramatically Reduces Cases

  • In 1971, the U.S. government licensed a combination measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, abbreviated as MMR.
  • Between 1989 and 1991, measles outbreaks in the U.S. sickened 55,000 people; many had not been immunized against the virus.
  • In the U.S., measles transmission was declared eliminated in 2000.
  • In 2014, a measles outbreak was traced to Amish volunteers who went to help after the typhoon in the Philippines and got infected from a measles outbreak there, made for a record year in the U.S. with 600 cases.
To Vax or Not To Vax?

The measles vaccine is one of the most effective vaccines in the world. According to the CDC, two doses are needed to be 97% effective against infection. The first shot is given to kids between 12-15 months, and the second between 4-6 years old.

In some people, the right immune response doesn’t happen. No one knows why. Either the body doesn’t produce enough antibodies, or the ones it does produce aren’t specific enough to target the vaccine’s viruses.

That’s why the CDC recommends two doses of the vaccine. But even with two doses, some kids wont’ have immunity.

Medical Reasons Not To Vaccinate:

  • Had a severe allergic reaction to the first MMRV shot.
  • Have an allergy to components in the vaccine, including gelatin or the antibiotic neomycin.
  • Taking immune suppressing drugs, like prednisone.
  • Have cancer.
  • History of seizures.
  • Family history of compromised immunity or an autoimmune condition.
  • Blood disorders, like low platelets.
  • Pregnancy.

The vaccine works. That’s not the controversy. The concern is whether it’s safe enough. Safety issues include severe immune reactions to the first MMR vaccine and allergic reactions to ingredients in the vaccine.

Possible Reactions To MMR Vaccine:

  • Fever (1 in 5 children)
  • Rash (1 in 20)
  • Swollen glands (1 in 7)
  • Seizure (1 in 3,000)
  • Joint pain/stiffness (1 in 100 children; more common in adults, particularly women)
  • Low platelet count/bleeding (1 in 30,000)
  • Encephalitis (1 in 1 million)

The main controversy about the MMR vaccine, however, centers on its possible link to the epidemic of autism.

The CDC reports that 1 in 68 children born in the U.S. may have autism. That’s an incredible admission from a conservative government agency, and a troubling fact for American parents.

The concern focuses on thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative used in vaccines, including MMR and influenza shots. Though extensive studies have been conducted on thimerosal, and the CDC along with many other health agencies in the U.S. and the United Kingdom dismiss any possible connection between thimerosal and autism, parents aren’t convinced.

There is distrust over science sponsored by the self-interest of cooperate medicine and pharmaceutical companies, and vaccination policy and technology that is more than fifty years old. Some doctors echo parents’ concerns. Not all pediatricians agree with routine vaccination for common childhood viruses like measles.

Health authorities seized upon the Disneyland outbreak to press for universal vaccination. But is it a problem of the measles vaccine not being used, as some experts claim? Or, is this a problem of the measles vaccine not working like it once did?

Let’s get our priorities straight. Measles is not an emerging infectious disease threat. It’s also not a deadly infection, like Ebola for example, unless you have weakened immunity.

Will Measles Outsmart Medicine?

Moderate thinking healthcare authorities recommend mothers make informed choices about vaccination. I do the same with my patients. In general, I don’t favor universal vaccination for common viruses, like influenza or measles.

Viruses evolved on Earth for a purpose. We may not know what that reason is, but some scientists want to know more, because eradication often doesn’t work and may even cause other problems.

Researchers from the Statens Serum Institute, Department of Virology in Copenhagen believe that early generations of the measles live-attenuated vaccines caused the virus to adapt, leading to a change in the way it infects people. This new adaptation leads to sporadic outbreaks rather than widespread epidemics, perhaps like the recent one in Disneyland.

Researchers associated with the Royal Society, a fellowship of the world’s most eminent scientists, found that the dynamics of the measles virus differs between seasonal epidemics in large populations and those in compact small populations, like Disneyland or small countries like Iceland.

In other words, the way measles once infected people in America and still does in Africa and other underdeveloped nations, may not be the way it works now. Viral dynamics mutate over time, especially when under pressure by vaccines and antiviral drugs.

Human-engineered solutions to common health conditions don’t tend to do well over long periods of time because infectious organisms find an evolutionary way around them. The Disneyland measles outbreak may not be because some of the kids weren’t vaccinated, but because the virus found a way to take advantage of a group of people, some of who weren’t vaccinated, and others who were, but didn’t have immunity.

Parents Versus Science

Instead of drawing battle lines between non-vaxxers, who may well be right in the long run, and the hubristic medical establishment and government health agencies, I suggest we consider a mature compromise to this disharmony, including careful re-thinking about the responsibilities of our technological actions.

Every time a mother or father asks me about my view on vaccination, my heart feels tight, squeezed and pressured. I’m a parent, too. I’d love to have a simple answer that’s always true, but I don’t.

I also can’t simply agree with the majority of my medical colleagues that believe vaccination is the solution to infectious diseases, because I know that’s only part of the story.

As for whether your kids should get vaccinated, only you can make that choice. But it should be one informed by reason, evaluation of risk, knowledge of the infections that could be prevented, and recognition that nature evolves. Remember, what was once true may be proven ineffective tomorrow.

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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  1. Lisa Moore says:

    This is a thoughtful blog. I would add two more thoughts. The first is that of herd immunity. One may get vaccinated not just to protect oneself but to increase the herd immunity which would, in turn, protect the many people who cannot be vaccinated and who would more likely die from measles. From a public health perspective, I am concerned that as our herd immunity continues to slip, we will see more mortality. And it won’t necessarily be those people who made a choice.

    The other thing is that the original study linking vaccines to autism has been soundly refuted. The researcher made up data and lost his appointment. Clearly something (many things) are causing the changes in the rate of autism and other ways that people are not neurotypical. But just as we need to carefully scrutinize and assess information from the medical and pharmaceutical industrial complexes, we also need to scrutinize the data and conclusions of those who proport to have opposing “answers”. None of this is simple. Thank you for keeping this complex

  2. June Hanson says:

    Great article Doctor. Whole heartedly agree. Parents should have the right to refuse vax. To take a small baby inject them with chemicals, antibiotics for a childhood disease, that most of us went through and our children also. If a mother decides to feed her child, organic, chemical free food. Teach them the importance of active exercise. does not allow them to stuff themself with junk food. Not allow them to just be entertained by TV or even Disney Land. Use their imagination in playing. Learning to read and enjoy books. Teach them value of planting a garden, letting them help tend it. When they do contact measles, most of them will never, ever have side effects. It is sad, that those parents and children are looked down on. They have a stay at home Mom, live with less electronic gadgets. Do not need to be entertained. Learn a second language. We would not have obese, disturbed children.

    These viruses mutate, there will be more in the future. If we do not keep our children healthy, we will be pumping into their little bodies, chemicals, that down the road, can cause more serious, incurable diseases.

    Yes, by all means, vaccinate your children, if you are going to raise them on the typical American lifestyle. Or, Dare to be different, like our Doctor Williams!!!

  3. While I understand some of the concerns this doctor poses, as a mother I have researched this issue to a dizzying degree. I don’t think the vaccines are perfect, but they work. And I believe this doctor gravely understates the potential for measles to make a comeback, which is extremely dangerous. I would never do anything to put my son in harm’s way and I educated myself without bias from the time he was a baby. This doctor contradicts himself many times by saying measles are “highly contagious” yet it’s hard to contract. He also brings in a sort of conspiracy theory mindset that does absolutely nothing to further the discussion of whether or not children might actually die if they are not vaccinated. Vaccinations in the U.S. essentially wiped out measles by 2000. This disease is NOT hard to contract. The measles virus is not only airborne, but it remains alive on surfaces for up to two hours after an infected person has left the room. That is a fact. And when the doctor essentially uses the argument of “perspective” insomuch as there are so “few” cases, I think that’s extremely reckless. Measles can quickly become an epidemic like, yes, ebola. Thankfully there IS a vaccine that can serve to protect a chain reaction that could (and historically has) devastated a population. Let’s not forget that measles has KILLED 40 Million people since the last century.

    I am not one for fear-mongering or buying into overblown stories that the media uses to attract viewers. I’ve worked in media for the last 25 years. However, based on the spike in incidents and the concern in the general medical community, as well as the fact that incidents of measles in the U.S. have more than doubled in the last 4 years, I am genuinely concerned. Yes, many of the current cases are linked to international travelers– a lot of them from Europe– but it doesn’t matter. If it’s here, kids need to be protected.

    There’s also a social dynamic here. And it’s important. Parents who do not vaccinate are typically white, educated, privileged people with an extraordinary sense of entitlement. I’m sorry to state it so bluntly, but it’s true. It’s this entitlement that suggests “please, go ahead and vaccinate your child so mine doesn’t have to.” Because the bottom line is that if everyone stopped— I can’t even imagine what would happen. It chills me to the bone.

    Thankfully, there are parents who understand that, while the vaccination schedule and recommendations are not perfect, we’re still willing to participate to protect the herd (which includes Ben) while we push for transparency and education. I know this is long-winded and I appreciate the debate and the earnest willingness to dive into understanding the history of vaccinations and that implies, I am STRONGLY opposed to the vague “do whatever you want” mentality that this doctor proposes. I love my son more than life itself. And he is vaccinated.

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