6 myths about measles and vaccination against it

Kazakhstan ranks third in the world among countries where measles in 2019 spreads much faster comparing to the last year. The situation with the control of the disease is worse only in Madagascar and in Ukraine. The FactCheck.kz has already posted on the threats of measles vaccination rejection, and this time it examines the most common myths associated with this deadly infection. 

Statement: Vaccination did not affect the decline in mortality and morbidity from measles 

Verdict: Lies

Before the first measles vaccine appeared on the market in 1963, the death rate from the disease had already begun to decline — in the United States, it had halved in 40 years (Figure 1).

Figure 1

The reason for this was two circumstances. Firstly, since the beginning of the 20th century, diet and its vitamin component, as well as hygiene conditions have improved. Secondly, human survival increased with the advent of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory therapy. Since the 1950s, the mortality curve has levelled off, 400–700 people per year continue to die from measles-related complications (most often due to a bacterial infection) – indirect factors have reached the limit in their possible impact on the situation.

With the help of mathematical calculations, the team of evidence-based doctors showed that if in 1963 the measles vaccine had not been introduced into the vaccination schedule, humanity would have only achieved a two-fold reduction in the death rate from the disease by 2004. However, after the vaccine was released, such a reduction was achieved in only 10 years. Although there is no the same noticeable dynamics, it reduces to this day. According to the WHO, from 2000 to 2017, measles vaccination prevented 21.1 million deaths worldwide (mortality fell by 80% over the years). 

If the mortality schedule does not clearly demonstrate the efficacy of measles vaccination, the morbidity figure below (Figure 2) fully reveals its effectiveness (USA). A statistically significant reduction in the morbidity of measles did not occur until the introduction of the vaccine.

Figure 2

Thus, medical advances gradually improved the survival rate of the diseased, but it did not affect the spread of the disease itself before the introduction of the vaccination. Before the introduction of universal measles vaccination, more than 90% of people were infected with this infection before the age of 10.

Statement: The vaccine against measles does not give a 100% protection

Verdict: Manipulation

According to the WHO position paper on the measles vaccination, the average efficacy of only one dose of vaccine, made at the age of 9-11 months, reaches 84%. For the age of more than 12 months, the vaccine gets in average 92.5%.

“Studies conducted on revaccination of children who did not have an immune response to the first dose of measles vaccine showed that approximately 95% of children develop protective immunity after the second dose,” WHO experts add.

Doctors remind that vaccines are not the guarantee. Vaccinations increase the likelihood of favourable events and reduce the risk of unwanted events. In the case of measles, complications such as diarrhoea, otitis or pneumonia can develop in 6-8% of cases. In this case, the vaccine, which effectiveness tends to 100%, is the best option to minimize the risks. Thus, it is a manipulation to compare the risks of getting measles for a vaccinated child and an unvaccinated one.

Statement: Measles vaccination causes immunity suppression for many years

Verdict: Lies

In fact, the wild type measles virus, not the one in the vaccine, causes the suppression of the immune system. The fact is that measles “prefers” to infect and deplete memory T-lymphocytes. These immune system cells “remember” how to fight pathogens that a body has seen before. Thus, the immunity built in response to previous infections ceases to operate (the process is called “immune amnesia”). 

It is shown that the so-called immunosuppression can persist for 2-3 years after suffering measles. Immunosuppression associated with the virus can lead to opportunistic infections. Such infections are caused by pathogens that do not cause disease in a person with normal immunity. In addition, researchers have documented cases of delayed mortality after measles.

At the same time, it is necessary to stipulate that once having experienced wild type measles, a person acquires immunity from this disease for life. Combined with proven immunosuppression, this effect is described as the “measles paradox”.

The measles vaccine virus is weakened; therefore, it cannot cause massive death of T-lymphocytes, as in the case of wild measles. WHO (with reference to the relevant scientific study) officially denied that the measles vaccine is capable of suppressing the immune system: it does NOT increase the risk of an invasive bacterial or viral infection within 3 months after vaccination.

The WHO expert also noted that the measles vaccine, unlike the absolute majority of other “live” vaccines, is not contraindicated for persons with immunosuppression, which is additional evidence of its lack of ability to suppress immunity.

Statement: Measles cures and prevents cancer

Verdict: Manipulation

Today, science knows only one successful case of a cure for blood cancer using the so-called oncolytic virotherapy, when a genetically modified measles strain was used.

In 2013, 49-year-old American Stacy Erholz became a participant in a clinical test initiated by researchers at the Mayo Clinic in the United States. The woman has suffered from multiple myeloma for 10 years (damage to the hematopoietic system and bones) and has already gone through a number of treatments. Each of them eliminated cancer, but after a while, it would return. Five years ago, the “measles cocktail” was inserted to Stacy, which could be used against measles for 10 million (!) people. As a result, she achieved a complete remission with the spread of cancer throughout the body.

How does oncolytic virotherapy work?

Some viruses prefer cancer cells to healthy cells: it is much easier for them to reproduce there. At the same time, cancer can skillfully deceive immunity, forcing it to ignore the disease. When a virus enters the cancer cells, the immune cells instantly “wake up” and join in the fight against the “enemy”. At the same time, the virus itself also destroys the “enemy”. In such treatment of cancer, the herpes virus and adenovirus (both genetically modified) are already being successfully used, a number of “wild” viruses have also passed tests or are still being tested.

In the course of further clinical tests, the modified measles strain did not show its effectiveness. Moreover, along with Stacy, another woman participated in the test in 2013, to whom the cancer returned two months later in a more advanced form. The success of Stacy has not yet been repeated. Note that the woman would not be able to recover if chemotherapy had not previously destroyed all of her measles antibodies.

The presence of antibodies after measles or vaccination is an obstacle to the above therapy, and scientists are actively thinking about how to get around it. However, science does not yet have any evidence of the effectiveness of wild measles virus or a vaccinated strain in the treatment or prevention of any types of cancer, so doctors strongly recommend not to avoid vaccination in childhood.

Statement: Measles vaccination increases the risk of autism 

Verdict: Lies

FactCheck.kz has already checked this opinion and cited references to studies confirming its contradictory nature. In 2019, Danish scientists once again refuted this statement. They conducted a national survey with the largest number of samples of this “problem”: almost 657.5 thousand children born in the country from 1999 to 2010.

The previous large-scale study, which led to the same results, was conducted in Denmark from 1991 to 1998 and included monitoring of 573.3 thousand children. American scientists also denied the link between measles vaccination and the development of autism in nearly 100-thousand samples in 2015.

During the newest Danish study, autism was diagnosed in 6,517 children. At the same time, scientists did not find a significant difference between the incidence of autism in vaccinated and unvaccinated children: the adjusted risk ratio was 0.93. For children whose siblings were autistic, the risk ratio was 1.15. In both cases, risk indicators show that the connection is due to a mere chance.

“The vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) does not increase the risk of autism, is not a provoking factor for children with increased susceptibility to them, and is not associated with the clustering of autism cases after vaccination,” the authors conclude.

Statement: Antibiotic in the measles vaccine can cause deafness and kidney problems

Verdict: Lies

The “Priorix” live vaccine against measles, rubella and parotitis actually contains an antibiotic called neomycin sulfate. Of course, an allergic reaction can develop to this component, but the risk of meeting any other allergen in everyday life is hardly much higher.

Antibiotics may be present as part of vaccines for two reasons: first, they are added to the vial, if it is designed for multiple doses, to prevent spoilage after opening; secondly, antibiotics can be included in the preparation if they are used at intermediate stages of vaccine production as a preservative.

The manufacturer claims that the neomycin content in the “Priorix” does not exceed 25 mcg. This concentration has no therapeutic effect (in other words, does not work) and is not toxic. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows you to eat milk with less than 0.15 mg/l (6 times more than one dose of vaccine) of neomycin, and baby-beef with less than 0.25 mg/kg (10 times more) of neomycin.

For therapeutic purposes, a person can safely take 1 g of neomycin every 4 hours for three days, a safe dose for 6-12 years old children is 250-500 mg every 4 hours. The antibiotic is toxic, and only due to the long and excessive use of neomycin rash, nausea and diarrhoea, deafness and problems with the digestive organs may appear.

Маргарита Бочарова
Журналист-аналитик. Магистр социальных наук