A child being administered with measles vaccine during the launch of a campaign to immunize children at the Beerta Muuri Camp for internally displaced persons in Baidoa, Somalia on April 24, 2017. UN Photo. Credit: UNSOM Somalia, Flickr
Many people are afraid of getting measles vaccine these days. The fear arises from the allegedly adverse effects of it, such as autism. However, this fear comes along with the resurgence of the dreaded measles outbreak. Consequently, measles once again takes many lives, especially of the children, who ought not die from such a preventable disease.
Measles vaccine being linked to autism
In 1998, a team of scientists headed by Andrew Wakefield published a paper in refutable science journals. Accordingly, MMR vaccine — a cocktail of vaccine that protects against measles, mumps, and rubella— seems to have a causal link to autism in children. He and his colleagues reported twelve children that displayed delay in growth development; eight of them had autism a month following MMR vaccine. However, the paper was later retracted. Accordingly, “several elements” of a 1998 paper Lancet1998;351:637–41 “are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation”. The retraction clearly indicated data misconception. However, that did not end there. Wakefield and his team published yet another study. Again, they implicated measles virus to autism.
Second study, still questionable
In 2002, Wakefield and his team biopsied samples from the intestines of two groups of children: with autism and control (without autism). They tested the presence of measles virus genome via reverse-transcriptase PCR and in situ hybridization. They reported 75 of 91 children with autism tested positive for measles virus genome. In the control group, only five of 70 were positive. Accordingly, their findings corresponded to their earlier conjecture linking measles virus to autism in children. However, critics still found critical flaws. For instance, the authors failed to stipulate with proof the origin of the measles virus genome in the patients — whether from nature or from the vaccine.
Studies refuting the link
Two independent large-scale studies (one in California, USA and another in England, UK) denied the link between MMR vaccine and autism. Truly, the number of children with autism dramatically increased. However, the percentage of children receiving MMR vaccine remained constant. The empirical data on a larger scale of population indicated the absence of causal relationship between measles vaccine and autism.
The side effects associated with MMR vaccine are mild symptoms of measles, mumps, and rubella. And not all children administered with it will show symptoms. As for measles, the common symptoms include swelling and redness at the site of injection, fever, and rash. Rare symptoms include anaphylaxis, bruise-like spots, and fits. No categorical study has fully established that MMR vaccine causes autism in children. Nevertheless, many people remain hesitant despite the many years of proven efficacy of measles vaccine. Their worries were aggravated by the likes of Wakefield studies linking MMR vaccine to autism in children.
Dubbed as anti-vaxxers, these people utterly lost their confidence on vaccines so much that they secluded and kept their children from getting vaccinated. The main reason arises from their fear that vaccines would cause more harm than good. Some of them even took a legal step against vaccine manufacturers for allegedly having identified the culprit of their child’s developmental delay. And despite the disavowal of Wakefield’s paper and having been repudiated by ensuing studies dissociating autism from MMR vaccine, many people including autism advocacy groups have not abandoned their skepticism. Some of them even came up with a “conspiracy theory” that vaccine manufacturers may be conspired into hiding the “truth”, i.e. MMR vaccine causes autism.
Pathobiology of measles
The genus Morbillivirus, a single-stranded, negative-sense RNA virus, is the causative agent of measles, the highly contagious airborne disease. Humans are the only known host of the virus. The video below describes how the measles virus infects the host cell.
In summary, the virus infects the epithelial cells lining the trachea or the bronchi upon reaching the mucosa. The virus gains entry into the host cell via its surface protein, hemagglutinin (H protein). The H-protein binds to the receptor (e.g. CD46, CD150, or nectin-4) on the surface of the target host cell. After binding, the virus fuses with the cell membrane to get inside the cell. Then, it makes use of the cell’s RNA polymerase to transcribe its RNA into mRNA strand. After which, the mRNA is translated into viral proteins in which the host cell’s lipid will envelope them for their subsequent release outside the cell. They spread to lymph nodes, and then to other tissues (e.g. brain and intestines). Soon, the disease manifests as fever, cough, runny nose, inflamed eyes, and rash. Common complications include pneumonia, seizures, encephalitis, and subacute sclerosing panencephalitis.
The vaccine that prevented the disease was first made available in 1963. It may be administered solely or in combinations, like in MMR vaccine. MMR vaccine renders protection against measles, mumps, and rubella viruses. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that measles vaccine be administered to infants at nine or twelve months of age. A person needs only two doses during childhood for lifelong immunity.
How vaccines work
Measles vaccine contains live but weakened strain of measles virus. Vaccines work by triggering an immune response from the white blood cells. These cells recognize them through the surface proteins of the virus. White blood cells, such as B cells, produce multifarious antibodies. One of the antibodies can fit to the surface protein. This will trigger the B cell to produce clones, called memory B cells, which, in turn, will produce large amounts of antibodies specific to the identified pathogen.
A re-encounter with the virus having the same surface protein would enable the antibodies to respond quickly by binding with and disabling the virus. They can also make it “palatable” to macrophages and other phagocytic cells that engulf and kill pathogens. How come the measles vaccine remain effective for so many years? The surface proteins of the measles virus are not prone to changes as presumed, and any mutation on them may render them dysfunctional. Thus, the immune system will always recognize the measles virus. And the immune response would be so quick that most of the time the vaccinated individual would no longer be ill.
One of the benefits of a rabid immunization program is that the immune protection extends to those who have not received the vaccine yet. Referred to as herd immunity, the community becomes protected from measles when a huge percentage of the population got the vaccine. In a study published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, measles vaccination in a sequence recommended by WHO apparently helped reduce child mortality. But in order to prevent and ultimately eliminate measles, WHO seeks global immunization coverage of at least 95%.
Recent measles outbreak
Failure to reach the idyllic 95% global coverage leads to the inevitable measles outbreak. For several years, global coverage with the first dose of measles vaccine has stood at only 85% whereas the second dose, at 67%. Thus, measles outbreaks occurred in all regions with over a hundred thousands of fatalities mainly due to serious complications. In 2000, about 21 millions of lives have been saved due to measles vaccine. However, measles cases around the globe surged by more than 30% from 2016.
Dr. Seth Berkley of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, elucidated the reasons of the alarming resurgence of measles of recent. He said, “Complacency about the disease and the spread of falsehoods about the vaccine in Europe, a collapsing health system in Venezuela and pockets of fragility and low immunization coverage in Africa are combining to bring about a global resurgence of measles after years of progress. Existing strategies need to change: more effort needs to go into increasing routine immunization coverage and strengthening health systems. Otherwise we will continue chasing one outbreak after another.”
Measles vaccine has indubitably protected millions of lives. However, because of the escalating apprehensions and the reluctance towards measles vaccination, we fell short from achieving the goal of eliminating the disease. If only we could stick by the goal and support local immunization program efforts, we might have already won it over once and for all. Measles is a preventable disease and measles vaccine has already been tried and tested for over so many years. I hope it would not reach to the point whereby an immunization mandate would be the inevitable recourse when in essence we can simply heed the call.
— written by Maria Victoria Gonzaga
1 Wakefield, A.J., Murch, S.H., Anthony, A., et al. (1998). Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, nonspecific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet, 351: 637-641.
2 Eggertson, L. (2010). Lancet retracts 12-year-old article linking autism to MMR vaccines. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 182(4), E199–E200. [Link]
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7 Cell Press. (2015, May 21). Why you need one vaccine for measles and many for the flu. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from [Link]
8 Frontiers. (2018, February 12). Measles vaccine increases child survival beyond protecting against measles: New study shows all-cause mortality is significantly lower when a child’s most recent immunization is a measles vaccine. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from [Link]
9 World Health Organization. (2018, November 29). Measles cases spike globally due to gaps in vaccination coverage. Retrieved from [Link]