“Immunisation Week” – Day 2

Immunisation Week Day Two – Measles, measles, everywhere…

Day Two of World Immunisation Awareness Week sees another reasonably quiet day in the country’s media. The focus for today appears to be measles, thus today’s story will be a very brief overview of a few of the issues around it and a critique of what the press are actually saying.

To start with, we have a press release from the World Health Organisation urging vaccination to eliminate measles from the Pacific region. Fairly standard fare – vaccinations save the day, vaccinate everybody so the disease disappears, etc – you can access it here.

The main piece of the day comes via a press release from none other than GlaxoSmithKline (now there’s an independent and totally reliable source of truthful information with no vested interests if ever I saw one!), quoting a Lower Hutt doctor urging us all to ‘revel in the success of saving thousands of Kiwi kids from serious diseases’. All hail the great needle, saviour of mankind!

He goes on to say, in this article on Yahoo! New Zealand sourced from the above press release, that ‘without measles vaccinations in the past 10 years, there would have been another 200-600 deaths and 300 cases of brain damage’. Those are some pretty big claims, so I thought we should take a wee trip down memory lane and see how those numbers stack up.

True enough, our wee country has had its fair share of measles ‘epidemics’ over the past couple of centuries since it was brought to these shores by European settlers, including some that brought a good number of deaths, in 1873, on and off through the 1890s, and in 1904, before mortality declined rapidly until the mid-1920s where it drops off significantly (bar a hiccup in 1938). Records found in public libraries – government appendices, yearbooks, and so forth – are easy enough to access and show these numbers clearly. The graphs contained in this article are collated from this data, and are worth a look.

According to IMAC, there have been more recent outbreaks in 1997 and 2011 (nice dig in there at the dirty filthy ‘unimmunised’ folk spreading disease!), with 2000 cases reported in 1997 with no deaths, and ’56 hospitalisations’ in 2011, but again, no deaths – and no figures on how many cases were actually reported. A look at the ESR report for the end of 2011 shows that there were 578 cases, although of those, 36 weren’t confirmed.

So, if our biggest epidemics in recent years brought no deaths at all amongst 2,500 cases, and the incidence is actually very low, and has been for decades – see graphs in the 2011 Immunisation Handbook – how do we get hundreds of potential deaths? Especially given mortality decades prior to vaccination was far lower than this? Methinks there may be an element of scaremongering going on at Yahoo! today.

Incidentally, there’s a most illuminating episode of that dreadful American sitcom The Brady Bunch that screened in 1969, which serves as an interesting historical document of how generations before us viewed the measles. In this episode, the children come home one by one, all suffering measles. The biggest ensuing drama is over whether or not to call a male doctor or a female doctor, whilst the kids play board games upstairs happily. One rather amusing quote from one of the children runs something along the lines of ‘For getting sick, you sure can’t beat the measles!’ Later in the episode we see Alice and Mrs Brady drawing up a chart of all the common childhood illnesses and the children’s names, ticking off who has had which disease. If you can find the episode online, it is worth the watch – it was previously available on YouTube but has mysteriously disappeared from there now.

What is truly worth looking at, antiquated sitcoms aside, is what you can do to aid recovery should you become infected with measles – know thy enemy, and so forth. Firstly, the biggest element appears to be Vitamin A, which limits the severity of symptoms as well as aids in the prevention of death. The Ministry of Health themselves recognise this in the aforementioned (and linked) 2011 Immunisation Handbook, however they go on to say that in developed countries it isn’t necessary to supplement, unless the child is hospitalised. To that, I have to ask why it is only necessary once they’re hospitalised – why not take it beforehand and prevent the illness getting to such an extreme stage in the first place? Particularly given the state of malnutrition of many children eating a typical kiwi/’SAD’ diet, and the low levels of Vitamin A in processed foods.

Personally, I would suggest ensuring your child eats a diet replete with wholefoods – plentiful fruits, vegetables (including plenty of raw vegetables), soaked nuts and seeds, and limited animal products if desired. Vitamin A tends to be found in high levels in fruits and vegetables with a yellow or orange colour, such as carrots, sweet potatoes/kumara, pumpkin and other squashes, many yellow or red herbs and spices such as paprika and chili, leafy greens, melons, and apricots, as well as cod liver oil and butter.

It is also important, of course, when discussing measles vaccination, to investigate what that vaccine actually is. In New Zealand’s case, we’re talking the infamous MMR vaccine. The vaccine is given at 15 months and four years of age, and contains measles, mumps, and rubella (‘German measles’) live attenuated viruses. Because it is a live virus vaccine, it is possible that people who have been recently vaccinated can ‘shed’ the viruses and infect others with them, which is an important point in light of not only clusters of these illnesses breaking out periodically across the country, but also given proximity to pregnant women and the potential impact of rubella on the developing foetus, given the virus is teratogenic.

The vaccine also contains recombinant human albumin, the antibiotic neomycin, glutamate, bovine serum, and is also cultured on chicken embryo, making it very risky for those with egg allergies. Have a read of the datasheet here for potential side-effects, and to look at what else is in there. This is, of course, without considering what other viruses and contaminants may be lurking in there too, as no vaccine is ever truly sterile, and it’s not possible to test for a contaminant you don’t know exists – as the carcinogenic SV-40 virus found in polio vaccines for decades illustrated so well.

And it wouldn’t be a story about measles vaccine without mentioning the saga of Dr Andrew Wakefield and the doctors at the Royal Free, and the potential links between MMR and onset of autism in susceptible groups. A look at his website here is very worthwhile, to understand what really went on, and to examine further research expanding on the initial case series (no, not study!) that was picked up on by the media and caused such drama. You can also watch a video statement from him here about recent overseas outbreaks and the impact of his work on these.

So there we have it – a brief look at measles in this country. Keep an eye out in coming days for our continued coverage of Immunisation Week, and for ideas of other things you can do to bolster immunity and keep yourselves protected without the use of vaccines and needles.