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The Myth of “Natural Immunity” and why Vaccines are still Critical

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During the last three months of pregnancy, antibodies from the mother are passed to her unborn baby through the placenta. This is known as passive immunity, because the baby has been given antibodies rather than making them itself. Antibodies are proteins that the immune system produces that help protect the body against invasions by bacteria or viruses.

The amount and type of antibodies passed to the baby depends on the mother’s own immunity. For example, if the mother has had chickenpox, she will have developed immunity against the condition, and some of the chickenpox antibodies will be passed to the baby. Conversely, if the mother had not had chickenpox, the baby will not be protected against that infection.

Immunity in newborn babies is only temporary and starts to decrease after the first few months. Breast milk contains antibodies, so babies who are breastfed have passive immunity for longer. In fact, colostrum, which is produced for the first few days following birth, is particularly rich in antibodies. Premature babies are at higher risk of developing infections as their immune systems are not as strong and they have not had as many antibodies passed to them. As newborn immunity is only temporary, it is important to begin childhood immunizations at about two months of age. This applies to babies who are premature or full-term.

The first immunization, given when the child is about two months old includes Pertussis (whooping cough) and Hib (Haemophilus influenza type b) as immunity to these conditions decreases the fastest. Passive immunity to measles, mumps and rubella (if the mother had experienced these infections) usually lasts for about a year, which is why the MMR vaccine is given just after your baby’s first birthday. Although many non-medical writers and bloggers insist that measles are “not a serious threat,” in 2014, there were 114, 900 measles deaths globally. This works out to about 314 deaths every day, or 13 deaths every hour. Today, measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children despite the fact that a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available. This is especially troubling for children immigrating to North America, and while measles was declared effectively eliminated from the United States in 2000, cases still occur when infected people arrive in the country. A series of measles outbreaks in the United States involving children adopted from China highlights the importance of vaccinations for any adopted child from overseas. These outbreaks occurred in 2004, 2006, and 2012. More recent outbreaks have also occurred here in the U.S.

In the first half of 2016, 48 people from 13 states including Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. In 2015, 189 people from 24 states and the District of Columbia were reported to have measles due to an outbreak at an amusement park in California. In 2014, the United States experienced a record number of measles cases: 667 cases from 27 states were reported to the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). In 2014, there were 23 measles outbreaks were reported, including 383 cases among unvaccinated Amish communities in Ohio. Many of the 2014 cases in the U.S. were found to have been linked to an outbreak in the Philippines. In 2013, the U.S. experienced 11 outbreaks, three of which had more than 20 cases, including one outbreak of 58 cases. In 2011, more than 30 countries in the Europe reported increases in measles outbreaks, and France experienced a significant outbreak (most of the cases that were brought to the U.S. in 2011 originated in France). The increase in cases in 2008 was the result of spread in communities with groups of unvaccinated people.

Although self-proclaimed “Naturopathic Doctors” will argue that measles in no longer a dangerous infection, they rarely care to talk about the complication or the statistics. The facts remain that babies born infected with measles have a 1 in 10 chance of ear infections and that these infections can result in permanent hearing loss. Measles has been associated with premature birth and low birth weight in pregnant. The dangers are not limited to new bourns. As many as one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children. About one child out of every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) that can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or with intellectual disability. Approximately two children out of every 1,000 who get measles will die from the infection.

If you survive a case of infant measles, you are hardly out of the woods. Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), commonly known as Dawson’s Encephalitis, is a rare, progressive neurological disorder of children and young adults that affects the central nervous system (CNS). It is a slow, but persistent, and eventually fatal viral infection caused by the measles virus. Because of the wide use of vaccines, fewer than 10 cases per year are reported in the United States. The incidence of SSPE declined by at least 90 percent in countries that have practiced widespread immunization with measles vaccine. However, the incidence of SSPE is still high in developing countries such as India and Eastern Europe.

SSPE generally develops 7 to 10 years after a person has measles, even though the person seems to have fully recovered from the illness. Since measles was eliminated in 2000, SSPE is rarely reported in the United States, however, as measles makes its comeback, expect cases of SSPE to begin to appear. Among people who contracted measles during the resurgence in the United States in 1989 to 1991, 4 to 11 out of every 100,000 were estimated to be at risk for developing SSPE. The risk of developing SSPE is elevated for persons who were infected with measles before the age of two years.

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