ALMOST TWO years ago there was a measles outbreak at Disneyland, which started when an unvaccinated Californian woman contracted the disease before travelling through airports and the theme park. Although more than 26 people got sick, many anti-vaccination activists mocked the spread of “Mickey Mouse measles”; the virus is possibly the most contagious human virus in existence. Some were loudly claiming that they remembered measles from their childhood as a mild, if annoying, infection; something harmless that all children should go through, that skipping vaccines wouldn’t harm.
In fact measles kills 367 per day across the world at present, according to the WHO. The total number of deaths last year were recorded at 134 200, down from an astonishing 2.6 million back in 1980. In 2000, the death rate in the US was 3 per 1000 cases (about 0.3 per cent) with another 0.2 per cent suffering permanent brain damage from the disease. For immunocompromised patients, such as those with AIDS or on chemotherapy, death rates are as high as 30 per cent.
Measles is currently one of the leading causes of child death that could be preventable using vaccines. A Vietnamese measles epidemic in 2014 led to over 8000 cases with 114 reported fatalities. In Europe, most cases occur in unvaccinated people, who then can expose those who are either too young to have been vaccinated (under a year old) or immunocompromised (they likely have been vaccinated but their system can no longer combat any disease exposure). In the 2013-14 period, there were 10 000 measles cases in Europe, 90 per cent occurring in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania, and the UK.
If you have been vaccinated against measles, given as two doses during childhood, you will likely remain immune to the virus for your whole life. However the influenza virus changes rapidly and this is why you will see a new flu jab offered every year. The WHO recommends that everyone gets the flu vaccine annually unless you are allergic or otherwise unable.
Influenza is caused by a family of RNA viruses that are classed into three genera, influenza A, B and C. The influenza A genus contains the virus serotypes H1N1 (swineflu) and H5N1 (birdflu) among others, differentiated by the antibodies on the virus surface. All three genera infect humans and cause disease, although influenza C is less common than the other types and normally only causes symptoms in children.
Influenza infection in adults can be mild to severe depending on the strain and the immune response of the individual. Fever, aches, cough, and fatigue lasting a week are the universal symptoms and you can remain infectious several days after they clear up. While the NHS only offers the free flu vaccine to those most at risk, most pharmacies now have the jab at a low wholesale price, and anyone can be vaccinated for £5.
It is never too late to catch up with childhood vaccinations. If you find that you’ve missed a measles, meningitis or other vaccine, your GP will be happy to help keep you safe and up to date.