This once common childhood illness may be making a comeback, yet some Canadian parents say the measles vaccine isn’t worth the risk.

A father sits by his daughter’s bedside with a small but growing concern. She has been ill for weeks and should be recovering, but he suddenly notices a frightening new symptom.

As he plays with his daughter an apparent disconnect between her brain and her hands begins to surface. She indicates that she feels sleepy and loses consciousness within the hour.

She died later that day. The cause was a rare but serious side effect of the measles.

This is the sad story of children’s author Roald Dahl. The year was 1962. A reliable vaccine for the then common childhood illness had not yet been introduced. After contracting the measles, his then seven-year old daughter Olivia developed a deadly complication called encephalitis – the swelling of the brain.

What is the Measles?

According to the Center For Disease Control (CDC), measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus  in the paramyxovirus family. It is airborne and is usually passed through coughing, sneezing and direct contact.

Measles may be one of the most contagious viruses in the world, but it has been eradicated in North America since 2002. That means that any new cases are the result of an infectious person travelling to north america from another country.

According to the CDC:

  • About 1 out of 4 people who get measles will be hospitalized.
  • As many as 1 out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children.
  • 1 out of every 1,000 people with measles will develop brain swelling due to infection (encephalitis), which may lead to brain damage.
  • 1 or 2 out of 1,000 people with measles will die, even with the best care.

15 Percent of Parents Don’t Fully Trust the Vaccine

Even considering these statistics, many parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children in Canada. A survey of over 1000 Canadians by the government of Canada explored attitudes, concerns and willingness of Canadians to get vaccinated.

The survey showed that one in 10 respondents only had a moderate trust in vaccines and a further five percent had a limited trust.

Sarah* is one of the further five percent. After the birth of her first child she felt pressured into vaccinating by her family doctor. When she asked questions and to see the ingredient list for the vaccine her concerns were brushed off. The experience sent up red flags for her.

“I also asked if the vaccinations could be given individually at separate times because I thought it was a little much for my precious new babe to handle,” she said. “He said that’s also not an option.  I asked why I don’t have any options. Why is it an all or nothing type deal?”

Sarah reluctantly went ahead with the immunization but the experience pushed her to do her own research.

“I saw how the shots affected his little body and started digging for info,” she said. “I realized I never wanted to put those ingredients in my baby again.”

While Sarah’s experience was negative, Dr. Richard Honaker, a physician who provides free medical consultations through Your Doctors Online says that it is not the norm.

The risks of the measle vaccination are minimal and the benefits are gigantic,” he said. “Doctors do not have time to explain all of this to every patient since it is so black and white, medically. However, if a patient has concerns we will certainly provide that information. It is important for patients to understand all the benefits as well as the risk. Patients need to feel comfortable with their healthcare.”

Some Doctors Questioning the Statistics

Physicians for Informed Consent (PIC) is a group of doctors who aim to educate the public about infectious diseases, the immune system and informed consent. Their aim is to eradicate mandatory immunization laws.

PIC has recently called out an oversight on the Committee of Energy and Commerce on the claim that measles claims about one life in every 1000 cases in a letter addressed to Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr.

“The reason this mistake unfortunately commonly occurs is because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes case-fatality rates based on the number of reported cases only. And, since it is estimated that nearly 90% of measles cases are benign and therefore not reported to the CDC, the widely publicized measles case-fatality rate is a 10-fold miscalculation. Such an error has grave public health consequences.”

The letter continued to say that suggesting there was no treatment available for measles was also incorrect. It stated that while measles in those who were low in vitamin A or who had compromised immune systems could be deadly, there is evidence that high doses of vitamin A and immunoglobulin (passive immunization) are indicated to treat or prevent measles upon exposure.

With these facts considered, the group claims that there is no need for the public to be concerned if individuals choose not to vaccinate.

However, many other science-based medical professionals debunk the work of PIC, claiming that the anti-vaccine movement intentionally exaggerates the risks of vaccination beyond what science supports.

Dr. David Gorski, editor of the website states on his blog, “Autism, asthma, autoimmune disease, neurodevelopmental disorders, all of these have been blamed on vaccination without any good scientific evidence to support a link between any of these conditions and vaccination. If, in fact, these conditions were linked with vaccination at anywhere near the rate that the antivaccine movement claims they are, anti-vaccinationists might have a point, but they aren’t and they don’t.”

What is the Risk to the Public?

According to the Montreal Children’s Hospital website, “When someone who is not vaccinated against a particular disease comes into contact with that disease, the spread becomes exponential if other people in the community are not vaccinated against it either. Every non-vaccinated person they meet – and in turn, every non-vaccinated person they meet – is vulnerable.
More important, certain children and adults with weak immune systems–whether because of chemotherapy for cancer, other medication or because they were born like that–often can’t get vaccinated. They are also at increased risk of complications from vaccine-preventable diseases and therefore need herd immunity to remain protected.”

What Would Happen if we Stopped Vaccinations?

While many are fighting for their right not to vaccinate, Canada would be a very different place if immunization stopped for everyone.

According to the CDC, if we were to stop vaccinations before a disease is eliminated we will see a slow increase of incurrances until all the progress over the last 50 years is completely undone.

This was seen in Japan with the vaccine for (pertussis) whooping cough. In 1974, 80 percent of Japanese children received the pertussis vaccine. There were less than 400 cases of whooping cough that year and no deaths.

Many Japanese people felt that there was no longer a need to become vaccinated as the rates of the illness were so low in the country. Rumors also began to circulate that the vaccine was not safe.

These events put forward a decline in the number of vaccinations. In 1976 the number of vaccinated children dropped to 10 percent. This drop resulted in a major pertussis epidemic in 1979. There were more than 13,000 cases of whooping cough and 41 deaths.

The government was able to once again reduce the number of cases In 1981 when  they began vaccinating with acellular pertussis vaccine.

Do Vaccines Cause Autism?

Despite the many circulated rumours about a link between autism and the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) many independent studies, including one performed by National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine were unable to find any links between the diagnosis and the vaccine.

In fact, the author of the original paper that published a connection between the vaccine and autism went on to lose his medical license.

Andrew Wakefield and colleagues published an article in the Lancet in 1998 claiming that the MMR vaccine causes inflammatory bowels which allowed harmful proteins to enter the bloodstream and damage the brain.

It was later discovered that Wakefield’s study was fraudulent. Not only was the research scientifically unsound, but it was also being funded by lawyers seeking evidence to use against vaccine manufacturers, and the results could not be reproduced.

Vaccination Complications

While it may not cause autism, vaccinations can have complications.

It was because of these complications that Jennifer* was not able to be vaccinated as a child. This is a fact she has spent her life hiding. As an entrepreneur, she worries how her status could impact her business, even though it has never impacted her health.

“I’m so healthy. I have barely even had a cold in my life,” she said.

Jennifer’s parents chose not to vaccinate her after her older brother immediately stopped breathing after his first vaccination.

“He went blue right there in the doctor’s office,” she said.

While the little boy’s reaction was serious, it is also rare. According to Health Canada, less than 10 percent of reported reactions to vaccines reported in the first quarter of 2016 (the most recent statistics available) were reported to be serious. The total number of reactions – both serious and not serious – was 639.

Not All Who Are Vaccinated Are Immune

In addition to dedicating two of his famous titles (James and the Giant Peach and The BFG) for his daughter Olivia, Dahl went on to author an essay for parents urging them to vaccinate their children against measles after the U.S. outbreak in 1986.  

“It is not yet generally accepted that measles can be a dangerous illness. Believe me, it is. In my opinion parents who now refuse to have their children immunised are putting the lives of those children at risk”, he wrote.

The eradication of the measles in North America was primarily due to the introduction of the vaccine in 1963, as well as a compulsory second dose introduced after an outbreak of previously vaccinated children in 1989.

Whether you choose to vaccinate your children or not, it is important to learn the signs and symptoms of the measles since the vaccine does not work for everyone.

Dr. Honaker explained that it is not known why some people’s bodies do not respond to certain vaccines.  “This is rare but does occur,” he said. “It is also possible for some people to experience reduced immunity or to lose it altogether. Again, we are not sure why.”

Elizabeth, a mother of four, was told she needed a boost of her MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine after the birth of her first two children. She was able to finally gain immunity when she got a booster after the birth of her third child. Yet she was frustrated by the lack of information available to her about the vaccine.

”I was extremely unhappy with the lack of information available about risks. I wished I could have statistics about vaccine injury and allergies,” she said. “Pharmacists and my family doctor were also very unhelpful at the time about answering my questions. More information has since been released, although I still have many unanswered questions.”

Measles in Canada

As of publication, currently there are 12 active cases of measles in Canada and 22 cases of measles have been reported so far in 2019.

Since measles have been eradicated in North America since 2002, all new cases are the result of travel outside of the country. Canadians are encouraged to check the travel advisories before travel as there are a number of countries experiencing measle outbreaks.

Signs and Symptoms of Measles

Signs and symptoms of measles usually appear about 10 to 12 days after exposure. The early onset symptoms may mirror many common viruses. The symptoms to look for are:

  • Coughing
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • A high fever (may spike over 104 degrees fahrenheit)
  • Small white spots on the inside of the cheek

It is important to learn these symptoms as the virus can be transmitted up to four days before the rash appears and four days after its onset. According to the WHO the virus remains contagious in the air and on surfaces for two hours.

After several days, a rash erupts, usually on the face and upper neck. Over about 3 days, the rash spreads, eventually reaching the hands and feet. The rash lasts for 5 to 6 days, and then fades. On average, the rash occurs 14 days after exposure to the virus (within a range of 7 to 18 days).

Most measles-related deaths are caused by complications associated with the disease. Serious complications are more common in children under the age of five, or adults over the age of 30.

The most serious complications include blindness, encephalitis (an infection that causes brain swelling), severe diarrhoea and related dehydration, ear infections or severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia.

Severe measles is more likely among poorly nourished young children, especially those with insufficient vitamin A, or whose immune systems have been weakened by HIV/AIDS or other diseases.

According to the WHO, of the estimated 20.8 million infants not vaccinated with at least one dose of measles vaccine through routine immunization in 2017, about 8.1 million were in 3 countries: India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Treatment of Those Who Choose Not to Vaccinate

Of all the information gathered about measles in Canada, perhaps the most shocking was the treatment of those who decided not to vaccinate.

“People say you should be sterilized, call you an idiot, say you should have your children taken away, be jailed or sent to an island,” said Jennifer.

Sarah was forced the sit through a presentation by the Department of Public Health and sign a document stating that by not immunizing her children she is harming them.

“In the Charter of Rights and Freedom it states ALL children have the right to public education.  Now there is an immunization act stating kids need shots or an exemption to attend. Yet they are suspending kids when their info isn’t up to date,” she said. “Wow, how is that kind to a child seeking education they are entitled to?”

Some parents, especially parents of kids with compromised immune systems and those who cannot be vaccinated, may disagree with Sarah’s sentiment. They just want what every parent wants – for their children to be safe.

Should we be asking more questions about vaccinating or is the issue black and white? Let us know in the comments!

Melissa Robertson is a journalist with 15 years of experience as a professional writer. She is also a hot mess mom to three very energetic daughters, and loves to DIY, share design and upcycle projects and creating patterns. She shares it all on her blog, Keeping Up With The Robertsons and, luckily, has a husband who is a total softie and is usually willing to go along with her crazy plans!