Every now and then, I run across an article or blog post in which someone who mistrusts vaccines argues that measles isn’t really all that serious. It’s just a garden variety childhood illness like chicken pox, they assert. Or, as one anti-vaccine blogger recently put it, measles is “just a rash.”
Upon reading that post, it occurred to me that most people have no personal frame of reference for what measles look like. We don’t have a history of seeing friends and family members come down with the disease because measles was all but eradicated in this country. So what we know of measles comes mainly from news reports, blog posts advocating for or against vaccination, or medical websites. The lists we see of measles symptoms and complications come across as either alarming (pneumonia! encephalitis! death!) or exceedingly bland (cough, fever, rash – ho, hum). The vaccine/anti-vaccine debate tends to make matters worse, as measles is portrayed as either a big yawn-inducer or the single greatest public health threat known to man.
Without wading into the merits of the vaccination debate, I thought the story of my experience with measles may be a helpful reference point for those considering how to respond to the current measles outbreak. Why my story? From what I’ve read, the symptoms I experienced probably could be considered typical – they were miserable and dangerous without being life threatening. Maybe more importantly, my medical history gives me a decent vantage point to comment on the relative severity of the measles. There are many, many terrible maladies with which I have no acquaintance, and in the big picture, I have led a pretty healthy life thus far. But along the way, I have experienced a range of serious and not-so-serious illnesses.
Like most people, on the easy end of my personal spectrum are seasonal colds and the like, and a bit further down are occasional cases of the flu and other mystery ailments. Still further down are things like chicken pox and a number of bouts with bronchitis (more on that later). Typical stomach bugs and food poisoning likely occupy the next range (I hate throwing up), including one sickness that landed me in the hospital with dehydration. From there, we have to travel a bit down the spectrum before we find Legionnaires’ disease, a rare and sometimes fatal form of pneumonia. That one was exceedingly miserable, especially from the high fever and terrible cough. Still further down the spectrum was viral meningitis, which I tried to tough out at home for a day or two because I had never heard that the combination of a fever and stiff/painful neck was a dangerous sign. By the time I went into the doctor’s office, I felt like I was on death’s doorstep. From there, off in the far distance, we can catch our first sight of the measles on my misery spectrum.
Measles and Me
I was a senior in high school when a group of students returning from a trip to New York brought the measles back with them. Mine was one of the early cases before a measles outbreak was declared, so we had no reason to think that the sickness I came down with was anything other than a bad cold or flu. For the first couple days, I experienced a steadily worsening fever, cough and sore throat, eventually landing me in the doctor’s office. The doctor diagnosed it as bronchitis and gave me some antibiotics and prescription cough syrup. The syrup did nothing for my cough. It continued to get worse until I was racked with fits of painful coughing. I would cough until I threw up, then start the whole process again. My stomach and mid-section grew very sore and tired from the almost continual coughing. Around that point, we went back to the doctor (a different one this time, as we had lost confidence in the bronchitis diagnosis).
I remember the look of fear on the pediatrician’s face and the sound of panic in his voice when he looked in my throat. He shouted out to the receptionist, “Clear the office! Get everyone out of here right now!” He then explained to us that I had measles, and because it was extremely contagious and very dangerous, they would have to take me out a different exit. I wasn’t exactly given the ebola treatment, but the message was clear: measles was not to be trifled with.
From there, the symptoms continued to pile on as I spiraled downward into sickness. I developed a rash over my whole body that dominated my waking thoughts because it itched terribly and brought shots of electric pain when my skin would brush against my clothes, etc. On top of that, I still had a terrible cough, nausea, fever, and headache. Then new layers of misery were added when I developed a painful sensitivity to light and sound that made it impossible to watch TV or do anything but lay still in the darkness. I lost quite a bit of weight and muscle mass because I found it difficult to drink and could eat little or nothing at all. By the time the symptoms subsided, I think I missed more than three weeks of school.
When people asked what the measles was like, I would say, “Think of all the illnesses you’ve had over the course of your life. Take each symptom, multiply it by five, and add a couple new and exotic symptoms. Then put them all together at once and have them stretch out for a long time, and that approaches what it was like.” Looking back, I can say with confidence that measles is BY FAR the worst illness I’ve ever had.
There were complications after the fact, too. Over the following months, I contracted bronchitis a number of times as my immune system apparently struggled to catch up. It took a long time for me to recover my physical strength as well. The doctor warned us that I could have been rendered sterile from my bout with measles, though that thankfully did not come to pass.
Don’t Let Fear or Ignorance Drive the Bus
At the end of the day, measles is not ebola. Don’t get so caught up in the current hysteria that you let fear drive you to mistreat those that jump on the anti-vaccine bandwagon. Neither, though, is it chicken pox. Don’t fall for the whole “measles is just a rash” narrative. If someone had written off my experience that way, I would have been tempted to punch them in the face.
Some people who get the measles will have an easier time than I did. A few will die. Most will struggle with a miserable illness that they would not wish upon any but their worst enemies. Consider the implications for you and your loved ones and act accordingly.