Top doctor warns of "conning" campaign

Online misinformation suggesting that children with measles can be treated at home with vitamin A and C and liquid zinc has no scientific evidence behind it.

That's the warning from the Chair of the International Committee to the World Health Organisation for measles and rubella, Dr. Nikki Turner, who said the campaign is "conning" people from getting appropriate treatment.

Social media has been rife with home made treatments for the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus, including calls to avoid vaccination altogether. 

The campaign has moved up a notch since Samoa declared a measles epidemic a month ago. 

But Dr. Turner told the Samoa Observer these posts are largely misinforming the public.

“The vaccine is not killing our children, it is measles that is killing our children. The people who chose to spread this myth will allow more children to die,” she said.

If anyone, but especially children, contracts measles and their condition at home deteriorates they must receive medical care from a professional, she urged.

“If the children are not drinking fluids adequately, are not passing urine adequately, are starting to become less responsive, starting to become drowsy, if they are breathing fast and they look like they are struggling to breathe… those are the points at which I would go to the hospital. 

“To delay or to obscure with treatment that does not work, I think, is conning people unfairly into not getting treatment.”

Bloggers and online personalities suggesting that hundreds of thousands of vitamin A doses will treat measles are incorrect, she said.

“Any child who is very sick with measles needs to be seen by a healthcare professional. Staying at home and giving them vitamin A will not stop them dying.”

Dr. Turner said vitamin A is useful for children with severe cases of measles who are admitted to hospital. 

The Paediatricians and Medical Advisors to the Immunisation Advisory Centre of the University of Auckland agree.

“In a hospital setting vitamin A is given as a high-dose liquid. Capsules and tablets cannot be given safely to infants or young children and are a serious choking risk,” spokesperson, Theo Brandt said. 

Suggestions spotted online to give children several pills a day for two days are “probably misinformed,” he added, “apart from being completely inappropriate for a baby.”

Recommended doses of vitamin A are always intended for a hospital setting, and not for community use, so are “completely wrong” for using at home, he said. 

Liquid zinc as a treatment for children recovering from measles has also circulated, in order to support a child to regain their appetite. But Dr. Turner said there is no evidence to suggest significant zinc depletion in children after measles.

“Children, when they have had measles, lose their appetite, and it is not just because of zinc depletion, zinc is one small piece of it,” she explained.

ADVERTISEMENT

“The answer to children’s appetite after measles is getting better, and giving them small amounts of food, as they can manage it, and lots of fluids. The answer does not lie in zinc.”

The same goes for Vitamin C, which has “no role” in managing measles or its complications, Mr. Brandt said. Dr. Turner agreed, saying that there is no evidence that large doses of vitamin C can help someone get through measles. 

“The importance thing for children with measles is fluid, looking after them well and if they are getting worse, good medical care,” she said.

One symptom of measles is a very high fever, which some people online are suggesting should not be treated with paracetamol or other similar drugs.

But Dr. Turner said to deny a child paracetamol when they are in distress from the fever would be unfair.

Paracetamol is for pain and distress, she said, not necessarily to bring down the fever.

“We used to tell people to use medication to bring fever down.

“There is evidence now that a fever is the body’s natural response to a virus and it can be quite helpful so we do not recommend anti-fever medication. 

“However, for a child who is miserable or upset or sick, paracetamol is incredible helpful for distress and you should not deprive them of that.”

One rumour Dr. Turner was eager to clear up is that the measles containing vaccines are not responsive to a strain of ‘wild measles.’ That is entirely untrue, she said.

“I can reassure you that the vaccine matches and responds to appropriately the wild measles.

“The measles virus has not mutated, has not changed. It is the same virus as it was when our older people were children.”

Before there was a vaccine for measles, people would try and expose their children to it in order to become immune. And while some may remember that as a different virus, Dr. Turner reminds that still, people died from measles then, just as they do now.

In those days, everyone in a given country would catch measles, and a quarter of the population would have severe cases with complications. One in 1000 people died, she said.

“People did die and people were damaged. People had pneumonia, brain damage. We still have people in our community who were damaged from measles.

“Before you had a vaccine you had no way of preventing it; before we had the smallpox vaccine people used to try and spread it around for the same reason, but it is unethical now to do that now that we know that vaccine prevents measles.”

People have also been contesting the treatments offered at hospitals, accusing doctors and nurses of inappropriate treatment by prescribing antibiotics.

But those antibiotics may be the lifesaving treatment a child needs if they have developed a bacterial infection as a result of measles which massively damages the immune system.

“Many children, after they catch measles, have secondary complications that include bacterial infections and in which case they definitely need antibiotics,” said Dr. Turner.

Finally, she added, if people go to hospital with suspected measles, and healthcare professionals are not yet sure, there is no harm in vaccinating them against the virus.

“There are no safety concerns about accidentally vaccinating someone who has measles.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Bg pattern light

UPGRADE TO PREMIUM

Subscribe to Samoa Observer Online

Enjoy access to over a thousand articles per month, on any device as well as feature-length investigative articles.

Ready to signup?