The importance of measles vaccination

A vaccination against the measles virus has been available since 1968 and is given to young children to protect them from this potentially deadly virus. This is a very good thing as measles can attack the central nervous system and cause severe damage – in unvaccinated countries it still accounts for hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of infections.

The virus is highly infectious, spreading through the air and 9 out of 10 people who come into contact with the virus will get measles. It has been so effective that cases of measles in the UK, US and many other parts of the world are now rare. The graph below illustrates the startling effectiveness of the vaccine program in the US.

Measles cases in the US since 1954

Measles hasn’t gone away

Despite this success, the measles virus has not been eliminated worldwide. To be fully effective at stopping new infections arriving from overseas (where vaccinations are not the norm) and triggering a spread of cases, it is important that the majority of the people in a country are still vaccinated (herd immunity). In most countries, vaccination is not compulsory, so future success depends on parents opting their children into the vaccination.

Vaccination rate is falling

Unfortunately, vaccination rates have fallen over the last 10 – 20 years, partly triggered by erroneous suspicion that the vaccine might cause autism or other health problems in young children. This means that the number of cases per year is now rising in countries that had all but eliminated measles which is bad for those who are now vulnerable to infection but a recent research report suggests that the problems run deeper and can directly affect aspergillosis patients amongst many others.

Top ten countries for measles cases 2019
Top ten countries for measles cases 2019

Measles virus destroys antibodies

Researchers have discovered that the measles vaccine works in two ways. Firstly it provides protection against the measles virus – but it also protects the immune system of the immunised person against severe attack. Someone who has had measles (child or adult) can have severely reduced protection from other infections for years as the viral infection also results in a huge loss of antibodies that have been built up over the patient’s lifetime as a consequence of various infections. We need our antibodies so that our immune system can ‘remember’ earlier infections by bacteria, viruses and fungi – it enables us to respond quickly to a new infection. Failure to do so means that we have to experience the infection all over again, with all the risks to our health that that involves.

Aspergillosis patients

Aspergillosis patients, as well as people with other respiratory diseases, have a strong tendency to get more lung infections, These infections exacerbate their asthma symptoms and can make breathing so difficult a hospital admission is needed to provide oxygen and long courses of antibiotics are often important. The National Aspergillosis Centre in Manchester, UK has learned that vaccinating patients against these infections, where possible, is helpful as it controls exacerbations of the condition, reduced admissions and improves patients quality of life,

It may now be the case that aspergillosis patients will need to be checked to ensure that they are not at risk of getting measles, as succumbing to the virus could leave them even more vulnerable to secondary respiratory infections.

Fireworks, bonfires and aspergillosis

fireworks

From late October to new year it is common in the UK for fireworks to be lit. Traditional busy times of the year such as Bonfire Night are still the times of heaviest use but instead of all of the celebrations happening on one night, they can now spread over a week. New Year is also a time for fireworks in many parts of the world, though the actual day this is celebrated varies across the globe, with Chinese New Year celebrated at a completely different time of year compared with UK, US and much of the world outside of China.

Firework displays are enjoyed by many wherever and whenever they occur, but there is a downside for people with respiratory disease. Fireworks are made using lots of gunpowder and bonfires often contain lots of damp wood and other burnable materials. Asthma UK warns us that burning all that gunpowder and firewood causes the release of many irritants that we know can potentially cause asthmatic problems. The British Lung Foundation warns us that people with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) are also at risk. Many people with aspergillosis also have asthma and COPD – aspergillosis often comes along with, sometimes as a consequence of other respiratory diseases.

Outside air pollution

If the outside air is very still the irritants can persist and build up in a wide area around large displays, and of course, there are often many smaller displays scattered throughout the neighbourhood. It is pretty common in urban areas for the smoke to build up into an obvious fog with a strong smell which acts as a clear warning that the air is unsafe to breathe for some. Sometimes that fog is still apparent the next morning! However irritant gasses like nitrogen dioxide gas (NO2) can build up and be completely invisible – the gas is colourless and odourless, so be aware and remain vigilant for telltale symptoms of worsening breathing (ie coughing, wheezing, tightness in the chest or shortness of breath).

Airway irritants

Irritants such as very fine particulates in the smoke and NO2 in the exhaust gasses are known to cause asthma attacks so Asthma UK advises avoiding the smoke if you can and to make sure that you have taken your preventer inhaler as prescribed, Bring your reliever inhaler with you if going out and ensure that people around you know what to do should your breathing be affected.

Aspergillosis

People who have aspergillosis might also consider that autumn is a time for many trees to drop their leaves and other plant material to die back. The presence of so much food for moulds means that there can be lots of the Aspergillus fungus on the ground and in the air at these times of the year. Try to avoid places where there is lots of leaf mould being disturbed, for example by people walking to a display and it can be a good idea to wear a facemask to minimise the number of dust and spore particles you are inhaling. If wearing a facemask makes you feel uncomfortable there are now companies making attractive scarves that contain air filtration layer so when they are wrapped over your mouth & nose they provide reasonable protection.