Marilyn Heins

I cannot restrain myself! I won’t be able to sleep nights if I do not do all I possibly can to fight the measles epidemic. This means I will have to repeat some things I have written before and say some harsh things.

Let’s briefly look back at the history of measles in the United States. In 1954 a medical article described measles as “inevitable as death and taxes.” The first measles vaccine was developed in the U.S. and made available in 1963, thankfully just in time for my own children to be immunized. After the vaccine was introduced, reported numbers of cases fell dramatically and after the vaccine was improved and the second dose added to the immunization regimen, measles was eliminated from the US in 2000. But it’s baaack!

The number of confirmed measles cases in the U.S. is now the highest since measles was eliminated 19 years ago. There have been reported cases in 23 states, including Arizona, nearly half of America. Measles cases are up over 300% globally.

I trained and worked as a pediatrician before the development of the measles vaccine so I saw many miserable kids with measles. Pediatricians then prided themselves in recognizing early cases so the child could be isolated before exposing more children. Complications of measles were feared by parents and doctors alike.

How can it be that 764 of us have been infected with the virus of this preventable disease? How could this happen in the very country that created the vaccine estimated to have averted millions of measles deaths worldwide?

  1. The virus still exists in many parts of the world. The incubation period (time between infection and symptoms) can be as long as 14 days while an international flight from a country where measles is endemic can be much less than 14 hours.
  2. The virus is very contagious: One sneeze can spread it. You can get measles by just being in a room up to two hours after an infected person had been there. Ninety percent of unvaccinated exposed people will develop measles.
  3. Doctors today may never have seen measles. The early symptoms can look like a respiratory infection, so measles may not be recognized until a child has infected many others.
  4. The anti-vaccination movement has weakened our “herd immunity.” When all or almost all people in an area are immunized, this can prevent an outbreak. It also protects those not old enough to get a measles shot and those whose immune systems are compromised by illness so they lack protective antibodies.

The anti-vaxx movement is getting stronger. A recent New York Times quote called the movement “an insidious misinformation campaign based on junk science and unfounded fears.” The misinformation has led to unvaccinated children in our midst who go to our schools, playgrounds, malls, ice cream stores, theme parks.

A single unvaccinated child who comes into contact with a person incubating the measles virus can start an outbreak. One infected child, even before symptoms have developed, can infect many. The Disneyland Epidemic in 2014 occurred because one infected person led to the infection of more than 150 others. You gotta give it up for the measles virus because it spreads itself so well!

There has been lax vaccination enforcement. Most states allow exemptions based on religious beliefs although nearly all religious leaders support vaccinations. Many states allow parents who hold the erroneous beliefs about safety of the vaccine to send their unvaccinated children to school. If an anti-vaxxer family was living on a desert island I would neither be concerned nor contest their beliefs. But I strongly believe parents living in a community have a responsibility, not just to their own children, but to others like babies too young to be vaccinated and those with compromised immunity.

Is there a way to counter irrational parental beliefs that can be harmful to others? Yes, science provides reproducible data about the safety and efficacy of measles immunizations. The fear about the measles vaccine causing autism has long been disproven. It was based on a single paper that was proven fraudulent and retracted. The author lost his license to practice medicine as a result. But this erroneous information is alive and well on the internet.

I will pull no punches. I am appalled that parents risk their children’s lives, as well as the lives of other children, because they hold an irrational, unproven belief. There are many examples of what I call “internet irrationality” today. Web surfing can uncover something to enforce any belief. We retrieve whatever we believe. If we read it online, it must be correct.

Are you a parent who doesn’t “believe” in immunizing your children? Picture your adorable child crying with a high fever, a red rash all over starting on the face, white spots inside the mouth, runny itchy eyes, bad cough. Picture your child with a dreaded complication of measles: encephalitis when the virus goes to the brain, severe pneumonia, blindness, deafness. Picture your child dead.

Sorry to be so cruel. I am usually kind to misguided parents. I try to help them become better informed because I want to save every child I can from pain, sickness and death.

My advice for parents who understand the dangers of infections and the value of immunizations? Be aware of outbreaks in the U.S. and check with your child’s doctor before any family foreign travel.

My advice for adults born before 1957? No worries. You are likely to be immune because everybody had measles back then. I caught measles in school and infected my younger sister. We were both miserably miserable.

What if you were born later than 1957? If you have records that you were fully immunized you are immune. If you lack records you are probably immune especially if you were born after 1968 when the improved vaccine was started. If you want to be sure, you could be tested for your measles immunity but it is easier and cheaper to get another shot if, for example, you planned foreign travel to a measles country.

My advice for the anti-vaccination parents? Please, please don’t take your children to Disneyland. I love children and do not want your children to get measles.

Dr. Heins is a pediatrician, parent, grandparent and the founder and CEO of She welcomes your questions on topics throughout the life cycle.