My vaccinated child got measles, and this is what happened

Posted By Elisa I. Muñiz, MD, MS, FAAP
February 5, 2015

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if your child got the measles?

As pediatricians, I know my husband and I never did. Despite receiving medical training in different parts of the world, neither one of us had actually ever even seen a case of measles. But just after our son turned 13 months—and 10 days after receiving his first MMR vaccine—he came down with a cold, an endless runny nose, and a fever that just wouldn’t subside. Then he developed a rash, stopped eating and drinking, and began vomiting.

We thought a trip to the emergency room would help rehydrate him until he got over what seemed to be a typical pediatric viral illness. So we went, he got intravenous fluids, and tested for common viruses that cause such symptoms. When all the tests turned up negative, he was discharged. At the same time, we were also told there was a measles alert in New York City, and because he had a fever and rash, he would have to be tested. We headed home and were told to see his doctor in three days.

Twenty-four hours later, my son’s condition worsened. He didn’t eat or drink, his eyelids and groin area became puffy, and he slept all day and night. Worried, I took him to see his pediatrician the next morning, who advised us to take him back to the emergency room because he was so sleepy and dehydrated. In the emergency room, they checked the results of measles testing. When the doctor walked in and said, “He has the measles,” my heart sank.  I cried out of anger that my son contracted a disease that had been previously declared as no longer endemic in the US.

Though he had received his first MMR vaccine less than two weeks prior, he was unlikely to have built up enough immunity against the virus by the time he got sick. Children are still vulnerable to infection during the time period between getting the first vaccine and developing protection against the virus. The only way to protect this vulnerable group of children and those too young to receive MMR at all is to vaccinate the children who are eligible starting at their first birthdays.

I also had a flashback to the moments I had spent educating patients on the benefits of vaccines, refuting the false links between vaccines and autism and the awful anti-vaccination propaganda I had seen posted in my own neighborhood. I was frustrated that despite pediatricians’ efforts to educate the public on the benefits of MMR vaccination, the number of children vulnerable to measles infection was increasing in the U.S.

The measles virus is airborne and highly contagious. Once measles is diagnosed, the hospital reports the case to the local health department. Then an investigator gathers information from the patient to track the person’s activities before illness in order to identify individuals who could have either potentially spread it or to whom the virus may have spread once my son became ill. We were asked questions about all of our whereabouts in the preceding three weeks, the most recent being the daycare center he regularly attends and the pediatrician’s office we had just visited hours before. We hadn’t identified anyone we knew who was ill, and we certainly hoped that no one we knew would get sick. Though there were several confirmed cases in our neighborhood, the health department also mentioned that perhaps his illness was a very rare side effect of receiving a live virus attenuated vaccine less than two weeks ago. However, to distinguish between these causes, a blood sample was sent to the Centers for Disease Control for further testing, and results would not be ready for several weeks. In the meantime, the goal was to manage his symptoms and prevent spread.

No one can ever prepare you for what it feels like to have your child in the hospital. Over the course of the four-day hospitalization, we awaited the results of various tests for complications associated with measles infection. On the third hospital day, he finally sat up and began drinking.  Later that same day, he developed difficulty breathing and I feared the worst – the onset of pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in children his age. I had never been more terrified. After administering numerous breathing treatments over 12 hours, he made a turn for the better and went home the next day.

The potential for infection also disrupted the lives of many in our community. The daycare children who were too young to be vaccinated underwent mandatory quarantine in their homes for 21 days, the period during which they could’ve developed symptoms of the infection after having had a known measles contact. Their parents had to make alternate care arrangements. The children with whom we shared a waiting room at the pediatrician’s office were also contacted and called back into the office to be assessed for symptoms and potentially quarantined as well. Luckily, no one else we knew became sick. But in the ensuing days, there were more and more cases reported and New York City officially declared a measles outbreak. Several weeks later the health department informed us that the type of measles virus that caused his infection was the same type as the one that had spread to other individuals in the outbreak. It was not a side effect of the vaccine.

What can others learn from our experience? My message to patients, friends, and family members is simple:

1. Trust the science. The MMR vaccine protects against infection and has not been proven to cause autism. About 95 percent of children immunized at 1 year of age will develop protection against the measles. Roughly 99 percent of children receiving two doses will be protected. If vaccination rates continue to decline, infection rates will increase, and children too young or otherwise ineligible for immunization will be vulnerable to infection. As a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, I am frequently asked about the link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Though we haven’t yet identified the cause of most cases of autism, there is no scientific proof of a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. Trusting what we know is smarter and safer than believing what has been disproven over and over again.

2. Vaccinate on time. The first MMR vaccine is recommended starting at 12 months. Due to personal scheduling conflicts, my son’s 1-year check up was slightly delayed. Perhaps this wouldn’t have happened if he had been vaccinated as soon as he was eligible, giving him a chance to build up immunity and be among the 95 percent of kids protected after the first dose of the vaccine. Delaying the MMR vaccine can be just as detrimental to your child and others in the face of rising rates of measles infection.

I had never wondered what it would be like if my son got the measles because I didn’t think I had to. Now that I’ve seen my first case of the measles, neither I nor any other parent should have to see another case ever again.

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About Elisa I. Muñiz, MD, MS, FAAP

Dr. Elisa I. Muñiz is a board-certified pediatrician practicing Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics in the Bronx, New York. She earned her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College, completed residency at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center, and completed fellowship at The Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her research interests focus on promoting developmental skills in underserved groups. Her other passions include motherhood, cooking, and traveling.

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