Is Measles Sickness Dangerous To Cancer? Symptoms, Treatment And Vaccination
People with cancer have many health concerns. Among them is the fact that treatments can affect the immune system, increasing the risk of infections like measles.
“Getting measles at any time in your life is dangerous,” said Dr. Nicholas Rohs, assistant professor of hematology and oncology at the Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. “But it’s particularly dangerous in people who are getting active cancer therapy.”
The measles vaccine has been so effective that the disease was declared eliminated Trusted Source in the United States in 2000. But in 2019, that’s no longer true.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 839 cases Trusted Source of measles in 23 states as of May 10, 2019. This number is preliminary and subject to change. Globally, the number of cases has jumped 30% due to vaccine hesitancy.
How Contagious Is Measles?
Measles is caused by Measles morbillivirus, a virus in the paramyxoviridae family. According to the CDC, the measles virus settles in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person. When a person infected with the virus coughs, sneezes or exhales, the virus becomes airborne and can spread to other people.
“The virus can remain in the air for significant periods of time.” “One can get the measles just by being in a room where a person with measles has been, even up to 2 hours after that person has left.”
Indeed, the virus is incredibly contagious — 90% of people who are not vaccinated against measles will become infected if they share space with someone who has the virus. A person with measles is likely to infect between 5 and 18 unvaccinated people, according to a 2019 review published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Do It Mean Measles Can’t Be Treated?
There are many reasons that the measles virus has been so difficult to full stop. Ranging from an increasingly connected globe to the rise of the anti-vaxx movement, here’s a breakdown of why the virus has made a return.
Reason 1: We live in a travel-friendly society
Measles can easily be contracted and spread by traveling or being exposed to travelers. Outbreaks in New Jersey and New York were linked to Israel and the Ukraine.
Most people think about getting shots when they go on an African safari, for example, but don’t consider the risks when traveling to places such as France, Israel, Greece, England, or the Philippines, which are high-risk locales for measles.
“You don’t need to travel to any of the areas experiencing an outbreak to get measles — you can go to a local party or on a plane or go the mall and be exposed to someone who has and is spreading the disease.”
Reason 2: It’s highly contagious
The virus is highly infectious because it can linger in the air up to two hours after a carrier leaves a space.
It’s spread through the air by droplets via coughing or sneezing. People who aren’t immunized have a 90 percent chance of contracting the disease if they’re exposed to the virus.
Reason 3: Carriers may not know they have it right away
Measles can spread to others four days before a rash appears, and up to four days after, making it possible for an infected person to spread the disease when they don’t appear ill.
The early symptoms of measles may not be obvious, which can lead to, or exacerbate, outbreaks.
“This can look like many other more common respiratory illnesses.” Because the rash doesn’t appear until several days into the illness, people may not alter their routines and can expose others to the virus without knowing it.
Reason 4: Money and logistics
Another reason why stopping a measles outbreak is so challenging is due to the costs. For every case, public health officials need to track down all the people who have been in contact with the person infected with measles.
Reason 5: Pockets of unvaccinated people
In this recent outbreak, at least 34 of the people infected had not been vaccinated against the disease. In Clark County, Washington, where nearly all the cases have been reported, the vaccination rate is just 78 percent.
This is far below the national average in the United States, where 91.1 percent of children Trusted Source between 19- and 35-months old receive the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.
While all U.S. states have laws that require vaccines for students, 18 states grant philosophical or religious-based exemptions for those who do not want to vaccinate due to personal, moral, or other beliefs.
Washington is one of the states that allow children to be exempt from having to receive the vaccine due to personal beliefs.
In fact, 7.9 percent of children in Clark County entering kindergarten received vaccine exemptions during the previous school year; 7.5 percent of kids in all grades in the state had vaccine exemptions. In Oregon, the rate of vaccine exemptions surged from 5.8 percent in 2015 to 7.5 percent last year— higher than the national average.
Symptoms And Diagnosis
Most cases of measles cause some combination of:
- runny nose
- red eyes
- sore throat
- white spots inside the mouth
A widespread skin rash is a classic sign of measles. This rash can last up to 7 days and generally appears within 14 days of exposure to the virus. It commonly develops on the head and slowly spreads to other parts of the body, said Dr. Aileen M. Marty, a professor of infectious diseases at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine in Miami.
As the infection progresses, the characteristic red rash will develop. The rash typically looks like large, red, flat splotches on the skin.
To test for measles, a doctor will examine the patient for telltale symptoms, such as spots inside of the mouth and the skin rash. If the doctor has any doubt, they may order a blood test to confirm infection, according to the Mayo Clinic.
What Is Measles Risk For People With Cancer?
When it comes to people with cancer, the greatest risk is to those who are undergoing active chemotherapy. [What Is E. Coli? Causes And Symptoms]
“Many kinds of chemotherapy can suppress the immune system, making it harder for the body to combat the virus.” “However, other types of cancer therapy, including targeted pills and immunotherapy, can also suppress the immune system.”
Certain types of cancer, such as lymphoma, may increase the risk of infection even when a person isn’t being treated, Rohs adds.
“With the possible immunosuppressive effects of the therapy as well as the general demands on the body to heal and recuperate, a person is at higher risk of having more complications from the disease, including it spreading to the brain and lung, which can be life-threatening,” he said. [What Are Parabens?]
Dr. Istvan Redei is director of the Stem Cell Transplant and Cell Therapy Program at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Illinois.
Redei told source the danger is especially acute for people with certain hematologic diseases. “Treatment options may include essentially rebooting the patient’s immune system through a stem cell transplant to help treat the primary illness,” he said.
“In these cases, patients don’t yet have the protection of vaccines, making population health through vaccination an important factor for their recovery after treatment to help limit complications through a secondary illness like the measles,” he explained.
Some people with cancer can get a measles vaccine, according to Rohs. However, those in active therapy or who have certain types of cancer shouldn’t get the MMR vaccine because it’s a live vaccine.
“This means that it works by introducing a very mild form of the disease to the body to allow it to learn to fight the disease. If the immune system is weakened, the body won’t be able to form the proper defenses and it can become a real infection,” he said.
Most people with cancer who’ve been previously vaccinated don’t need to be vaccinated again after treatment. “This exception is for people who undergo bone marrow transplants. They have to receive all of their vaccines again after a transplant. The MMR vaccine is often recommended two years after completing a transplant,” Rohs said.
Talk to your doctor if you’re not sure of your vaccination status, Rohs advises. A blood test can determine whether you’re immune to measles. [What Is Virotherapy?]
Treatment And Recovery For None Cancer Individuals?
Almost all cases require treatment by a doctor. “This is a disease where complications are common — complications such as ear infection (acute otitis media), diarrhea and dehydration, pneumonia, encephalitis and even death.”
Young children are much more susceptible to the virus. According to the Mayo Clinic, measles kills 100,000 people a year, most under the age of 5. Pregnant women and those with a compromised immune system are also at risk of severe complications.
There is no specific drug for treating measles. Instead, doctors treat the symptoms. “This means your medical doctor would provide/advise hydration, antipyretics (e.g., acetaminophen) for comfort and fever control, airway humidification in patients with respiratory tract involvement.”
To protect those who have been exposed to the virus but have not been vaccinated, a doctor may order a post-exposure vaccination. If given within 72 hours of exposure, the vaccination may prevent the measles. Even if it doesn’t prevent the disease, the vaccinated patient will only have a mild case of the measles, according to the Mayo Clinic.
For many people, recovering from the measles includes resting at home until the symptoms subside. It is important for patients to drink plenty of fluids to replace fluids lost during fevers. It may also be helpful to use a humidifier to relieve congestion and to block out bright lights that may bother sensitive eyes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Once the disease has run its course, the person will be immune to the virus.
However, the immune system may be significantly weakened for up to 2 years after recovering from the measles, according to Lighter. During this time, people can be more susceptible to secondary viral and bacterial infections, which may cause more complications than the original measles infection.
The Measles Vaccine
The best way to prevent measles is by vaccination. The CDC recommends 2 doses of the vaccine; the first for those between 12 and 15 months of age and the second for children between 4 and 6 years of age. The vaccine is 97% effective for those who receive both doses and about 93% effective for those receiving one.
Measles has a low death rate in healthy children and adults, and most people who contract the measles virus recover fully. The risk of complications is higher in the following groups:
- children under 5 years old
- adults over 20 years old
- pregnant women
- people with a weakened immune system
- individuals who are malnourished
- people with a vitamin A deficiency
Approximately 30 percent Trusted Source of people with measles experience one or more complications. Measles can lead to life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia and inflammation of the brain (encephalitis).
Other complications associated with measles may include:
- ear infection
- severe diarrhea
- pregnancy complications, such as miscarriage or preterm labor
- subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a rare degenerative condition of the nervous system that develops years after infection
You can’t get measles more than once. After you’ve had the virus, you’re immune for life. However, measles and its potential complications are preventable through vaccination. Vaccination not only protects you and your family, but also prevents the measles virus from circulating in your community and affecting those who can’t be vaccinated.
Getting the proper vaccinations not only protects the individual receiving the vaccine, it also protects those who cannot be vaccinated: those allergic to components of the vaccine, those with a compromised immune system or those too young to receive the vaccine.
About 94% of the U.S. population is vaccinated against measles, according to a study, although there are pockets of people who delay or refuse vaccines. The groups of unvaccinated people make it difficult to control the spread of measles.
“All measles outbreaks in the U.S. start either with a visiting international traveler infected with measles or from an unvaccinated U.S. resident returning from an international trip with a measles infection,” Mukundan said. The infection is then spread to others in the community who are unvaccinated.
Before the measles vaccine approval in 1963, an estimated 3 to 4 million people in the U.S. contracted the measles per year, with 400 to 500 dying from complications, according to the CDC. Introduction of the vaccine led to a greater than 99% reduction in measles cases in the U.S. A wealth of research has confirmed that there is no relationship between vaccines and autism and has repeatedly validated the safety of the measles vaccine.
“Protect yourself and your loved ones by making sure that they are up to date on the measles vaccine,” Mukundan said. “Prevention, meaning vaccination, is always better than cure.”
Additional resources for Measles:
- Find answers to frequently asked questions about measles, from the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
- Learn more about the measles vaccine from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Read about the World Health Organization’s position on the measles vaccine and their goal to eradicate measles.
- Measles Outbreak Endangers People Receiving Cancer Treatment