Parents of newborns living in fear in the US measles epidemic

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Roberta Traini gritted her teeth through the small talk at the Barnes & Noble checkout, grabbed her purchases and hustled her 5-month-old daughter, Gretha, into the chilly April air, where it was safer to breathe. “I was freaking out in there,” Traini said, jabbing her finger at the store. “I needed to buy a present for a birthday, so I was forced to go. I was nervous the whole time.”

According to a report in The New York Times, this is life during a measles outbreak for parents of babies: a maelstrom of fear, isolation, truncated plans and, not infrequently, unfiltered fury.

Children typically do not receive their first dose of measles vaccine until after their first birthday. So, the report says, parents of infants are trapped in a dangerous limbo. They want to protect their children from measles, an extremely contagious virus that killed 110,000 people around the world in 2017, most of them young children. Yet they have little choice but to chance exposing their yet-to-be-vaccinated babies any time they leave home.

The concern is upending family routines, leaving some parents of infants steering clear of public transit, playgrounds, malls and more. The report says for Traini, 41, who teaches biology at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, going out with Gretha at all felt like a risky move. They live in Oakland County, Michigan, just outside Detroit, which in recent weeks has been the site of a major measles outbreak, mostly in Orthodox Jewish areas. At least 43 people have been reported ill in Michigan.

The number of measles cases in the US has surpassed 700, the highest figure recorded in any year since the disease was declared eliminated in this country in 2000, federal health officials said.

Many people, vaccinated or not, seem unaware of the particular vulnerability of infants. But, the report says, current parents of babies have suddenly grown acutely aware, sharing information on playgrounds, in paediatricians’ offices and on Facebook. For many, the days of watching new cases of measles pop up around the country – a reflection of the rise of the anti-vaccination movement and of measles outbreaks in other countries where Americans travel – have been agonising.

“It’s just maddening, because I shouldn’t have to worry about measles,” said Katherine Jones, 37, a grant manager at an environmental non-profit group in San Francisco and the mother of an eight-week-old baby. For people who don’t vaccinate their children, she said, “It’s a choice.” But she added: “It’s not a choice for me, because my baby cannot be vaccinated. The folks who are choosing not to vaccinate their children or be vaccinated themselves are putting my child in danger.”

Paediatricians say that giving the measles vaccine to children younger than a year old is usually unnecessary and may be ineffective, in part because babies that age still have antibodies from their mothers that could inhibit their response to the vaccine. If their mothers were fully immunised, babies may be born with some protection from measles, but it varies from child to child, said Dr Annabelle De St Maurice, an expert on infectious diseases at University of California Los Angeles. Giving the measles vaccine at 12 to 15 months of age leads to a higher proportion of protected children than giving it earlier does, she said.

The report says in New York, the site of the largest measles outbreak so far this year, parents are worrying whether their babies should be taken on the subway. Children have been pulled out of day care. Paediatricians have been lobbied by parents to administer the measles vaccine early.

In Michigan, cafes and shopping centres suddenly seem less safe. “There are just some places that we don’t go,” said Lucretia Sims, 29, as she walked outdoors in Farmington Hills, Michigan, with her 7-month-old son, Ayden, in a stroller. She said she has been keeping him away from other children. “I think people have gotten a little selfish,” she said of families who believe that vaccines cause more harm than good, despite scientific studies that have, for instance, found no link between vaccines and autism. “We depend on the community to take care of each other. The babies have no options.”

The measles virus is extremely virulent: According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, “you can catch measles just by being in a room where a person with measles has been, up to two hours after that person is gone.”

“My recommendation has been to try not to go out to public places until this calms down,” said Dr Matthew Hornik, a paediatrician in West Bloomfield, Mich. “And asking those people around them, are you vaccinated? Are your kids vaccinated or not?”

The report says some paediatricians make exceptions to the one-year rule during outbreaks, administering the measles vaccine to children as young as 6 months old. They will also commonly make the same exception for babies who will be traveling abroad. The CDC recommends giving the vaccine early in those situations.

Even so, many parents said they had been denied an early vaccine for their babies, and were instead left to consider whether to take other precautions. “You can’t put yourself in a bubble,” said Kayli Scott, 28, whose second baby is due in August, adding that she was determined not to alter her routine if measles is still a problem after her baby is born. “We’re still going to go out,” she said.

The report says in the aisles of a Buy Buy Baby store in Oakland County last week, Bridgett Murray recounted her daily routine to protect her three-month-old daughter, Sloane, during the current outbreak. When Murray gets home each day from her job at a private school in suburban Detroit, she vigorously scrubs her hands with soap and water. Then she changes out of her work clothes into a fresh outfit. Only then will she pick up Sloane. “It’s definitely scary,” she said. “I contemplated not going back to work after maternity leave.”

Elle Gotham, a lawyer in Detroit, phoned the day care centre that her baby, Penelope, attends three days a week to ask whether it serves many children from the northern suburbs, where the outbreak has been most pronounced. “They said very few,” Gotham said. “If it gets into a day care, it’s a disaster.”

The report says some friendships between families who vaccinate and those who do not have suffered. “We have friends who don’t believe in vaccines, and those friendships aren’t going to be maintained at the risk of her health,” said one father, who gave his name only as Mike, as he pushed his 11-month-old daughter down a street in Royal Oak, Michigan. “Anti-vaxxers aren’t allowed in our house.”

Jill Dumme of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the mother of an 8-month-old named Benjamin, said she had tried to avoid the topic with her friends, most of whom do not vaccinate. She said she won’t bring Benjamin near their children. “They’re so passionate about it, and so anti-vax,” she said. “I love them, so I’m not going to sit and argue with them about it. You do you, I’ll do me. But until my kids are safe, I’m going to steer clear.”

Colleen Serafini, of Pleasant Hill, California, said she has been reading news reports about measles outbreaks late at night, thinking about her daughter, Tess, who is a few weeks away from her first birthday. It is surreal to be stuck worrying about a once-eradicated disease, she is quoted in the report as saying, recalling a hike she and her husband once took in a state park named after Jack London, who wrote a century ago about a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by plague.

“We were talking about what a scary time it was then to have kids, when they got these diseases,” Serafini said. “To be talking about that again is absurd.”

The New York Times report

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