A brief history of measles

Dr. Leo Galland is a board-certified gastroenterologist and the author of an outstanding book entitled Power Healing (ISBN 0-375-75139-4). In it, he outlines a brief history of measles and some of the critical policy choices that modern medicine has faced as well as the decisions that have been made.

According to Dr. Galland, measles was the leading killer of children in nineteenth-century England. During the twentieth century – and long before the measles vaccine had become available – the severity of measles in the West began to decline. By mid-century most children contracted this disease, but very few died. It is now a well-known fact that the declining measles mortality rate in the West was due to an increased standard of living, which made fruits, vegetables and high-quality protein more widely available thereby increasing the amount of Vitamin A in the diet. As Dr. Galland points out, it has been known for over sixty years that Vitamin A deficiency is the main cause of mortality from measles.

In Africa, where malnutrition in children is widespread, measles remains a major killer even today. When aid programs introduced the measles vaccine in an effort to control this tragedy, mortality among children actually increased. This is believed to be a result of immune suppression induced by the vaccine and amplified by malnutrition. On the other hand, simply administering Vitamin A to African children, with no other changes, quickly reduced fatalities from measles by 50%. Measles can therefore be considered a relatively benign disease among well-nourished children that becomes fatal to those lacking a single nutrient. Dr. John Sommer of the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health estimates that “improving the Vitamin A status of all deficient children worldwide would prevent as many as three million childhood deaths a year.” The choice facing medical policy makers is between ensuring adequate Vitamin A intake in the overall population and promoting a vaccine as the only solution to the risks associated with measles.

Promoting the vaccine may someday be proven to be an unfortunate one for many children since the vaccine has been linked with the autism epidemic. The extent to which it may be a cause of autism has not been fully established; however, research by Andrew Wakefield, MD (Autism Research Review International, 2002;16:1-3, reprinted from a pre-publication copy of Molecular Pathology, 2002) reveals that autistic individuals have high counts of measles antibodies in their intestinal tracts. The only exposure to measles for these children is through vaccines. These elevated measles antibodies counts are not found in children who do not have autism or intestinal disorders. This study elicited many responses stressing that it failed to prove any causal link between the measles vaccine and autism (BMJ, 2002;324:315), but the search for answers continues.

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