So, I’ve spoken before about the fact that I was an unlucky child and got measles in 1987. I’d had my MMRs, but I’m just part of the unlucky 1% that has no measles immunity even with exposure and vaccinations. I’ve felt crappy for a couple of days now. Migraines on and off, coughing, some head congestion, sinus drainage, and some minor ear problems. I’ve seen some posts recently about how Measles is a one and done disease and it’s better to just get measles than get vaccinated.
But oh ho, let me set the record straight. Measles is not always a one and done disease and its effects can last longer than 10-14 days. I’ve had at least 12 MMR vaccinations and I’ve had measles. If I were to be exposed tomorrow, I would get measles again because 1% of the world’s population cannot create immunity to measles and I’m in that 1%.
The most commonly known life-time side effect of measles is complete or partial hearing loss. Measles is a respiratory disease, but the fever can cause brain damage and can cause damage to the eardrum.
But all my life I’ve heard “You get sick at the drop of a hat.” Yep. I know and it’s always really bad. I didn’t know why for a long time, not really. In 1999, I got really sick suddenly while at work one day. My boss an epidemiologist pronounced I had tonsillitis once again and possibly strep. Then he asked “Did you have measles as a child?”
“Uh, yeah, I did.”
“I think it damaged your immune system. I’ve seen it lots of people who had measles as a child. Are you immune to them now?”
“I don’t know.” I replied. “Surely I am, I’ve had them once.”
“Don’t be so sure. You may never get immunity to them, even if you have them 10 times.” Lots of blood work later and I learned, I did not have measles immunity and my ability to create white cells was low for an adult and my “immune system memory” was also bad.
But why? Measles. In the last six or seven years, we’ve learned a lot about measles and how it can permanently change or damage the immune system. Most of us carry T-cells to fight off the common cold and our body just naturally produces them because the common cold is such a common viral infection.
Except, my immune system doesn’t. Every time I’m exposed to the common cold, it’s like it’s a brand new disease to my immune system. Same with viral pneumonia, despite having had it in the past. I get a flu shot every year and my body does react fairly normally to it, but it really only increases the likelihood of my body recognizing the influenza virus.
That measles infection when I was six, caused my immune system to be spotty at best even 33 years later. People joke that I should live in a bubble because I catch a cold so easily. But they aren’t entirely wrong. I have an immune system, but my immune system memory was damaged by the measles virus and so, I do get sick easily and most of the time, it’s brutal. Most people get over a cold in three or four days, but it can take me 10, because my body has to start all over again as if the common cold were a brand new virus my immune system has never seen before.
The common cold won’t kill me, but it does feel like I have plague when I get it or a sinus infection, because that memory is not limited to viral infections. I also don’t carry a lot of memory for bacterial infections. Expose me to strep and I’ll come down with it when no one else does, because strep is one of the bacteria my immune system doesn’t seem to recognize… even without tonsils, I still get serious strep throat infections.
When I got Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever nearly a decade ago, I had to do 2 months of antibiotics, because my immune system was zero help against it. It really was a brand new bacterial infection and while my body should have been pumping out white cells to battle alongside the antibiotics, it wasn’t. I finished 14 days of antibiotics without missing a single pill and within a week, the bacteria had overwhelmed me again and it was like I had never taken those antibiotics. Another 21 days was prescribed of two antibiotics. I finished them and within a week, I was back to being overloaded with the RMSF bacteria. 28 days of 2 more antibiotics were prescribed and I was told if my immune system didn’t kick in this time, we’d probably have to hospitalize me to get rid of it.
My immune system didn’t kick in. I finished those 28 days and ended up getting daily antibiotic injections for 10 days. I avoided the hospital, but it was rocky mountain spotted fever an easily treated bacterial infection. The epidemiologist that took over my case, asked me “Did you have measles as a child?”
“Ah, yes, that explains it. We need to better compensate for your immune system. We’ll get it under control now.”
And we did thankfully. So, when you see those posts that it only makes a kid sick for about 10 days, question it. Measles can cause lifetime side effects that go beyond hearing loss or brain damage. My 12MMRs (which might be 15, I’ve lost count) didn’t do any damage to me and it didn’t give me measles immunity (although, it is really unlikely I’ll get rubella or mumps). But the damage measles did to my immune system is lifelong. And not only can it cause damage like it did in me, it can “reset” the immune system. I had chicken pox twice. I’ve always just sort of thought, it was because my first time wasn’t that bad (although, it was pretty bad). But a few years ago, I read an article about how measles can “reset” the immune system, removing immunity to diseases you’ve already had. I got Chicken pox the first time before measles and the second time after measles.