How Can a Measles Infection Trigger a Growth Spurt in Kids?

Wait, what?

Some folks think that one of the benefits of getting a life-threatening illness is that it can help your kids go through a growth spurt?

How Can a Measles Infection Trigger a Growth Spurt in Kids?

While the theory doesn’t make any sense to me, as a skeptic, I’m going to research it and see what I find.

For one thing, the myth seems to have its origins among anti-vaccine folks who think that measles means “gift from a goddess” in ancient Sanskrit.

It doesn’t.

Most people think that the etymology of the term measles is Dutch

But that isn’t the only reason this theory doesn’t make sense.

We know that a recent measles infection can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to getting sick with other diseases. And this effect can last a long time, for up to three years!

“The measles virus can cause serious disease in children by temporarily suppressing their immune systems. This vulnerability was previously thought to last a month or two; however, a new study shows that children may in fact live in the immunological shadow of measles for up to three years, leaving them highly susceptible to a host of other deadly diseases.”

A deadly shadow: Measles may weaken immune system up to three years

Now I’m thinking that having measles and then having a weakened immune system for up to three years isn’t going to help your rate of growth.

But still, that’s not evidence that it couldn’t happen…

“In Papua New Guinea a different pattern emerged again, with measles having an enormous effect on growth. Skin sores also reduced growth to some extent. The fact that measles was not important in The Gambia was probably due to the policy there of giving measles vaccine routinely.”

Cole on Relating growth rate to environmental factors–methodological problems in the study of growth-infection interaction.

The effect on growth in Papua New Guinea wasn’t positive.

What other evidence is there, besides the fact that we know that folks with measles need a lot of extra energy while they are recovering from their infection, so likely don’t have a lot leftover for a growth spurt?

There’s the fact that precocious puberty can be a complication of some infections, including measles. What happens if your child has precocious or early puberty? An early growth spurt? Yes, actually, but then they stop growing earlier than they should and they end up being shorter than their genetic potential.

Some more indirect evidence against any kind of extra growth spurt from a natural measles infection is that the mean height of young adults today, most of whom were vaccinated and didn’t have measles, isn’t that different from those measured in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Since the first measles vaccines were introduced in the 1960s, the folks in red likely had measles, while those in blue were likely vaccinated. Why aren't the older folks taller because of their measles boost?
Since the first measles vaccines were introduced in the 1960s, the folks in red likely had measles, while those in blue were likely vaccinated. Why aren’t the older folks taller because of their measles boost?

Mean height has gone down a little bit in recent years though.

The explanation?

No, it’s not because we don’t get measles anymore!

It’s because of poor diet choices and that obesity is also up. Genetic factors and immigration are also thought to play a role. And that previous increases because of improvements in nutrition and health conditions have likely leveled off for many people.

“An important number of decelerations was related to infection with measles which provokes initial wasting; later, recuperation was partly through increase of weight and arm circumference, and partly through delayed stunting.”

Growth decelerations among under-5-year-old children in Kasongo (Zaire). I. Occurrence of decelerations and impact of measles on growth

Perhaps the best evidence against the idea of a growth spurt with a measles infection though is an actual study that shows that kids have actual decelerations in their growth during their infection and while recovering.

Some of these kids, those that survived, had a “permanent growth deficit.”

So much for the idea of a growth spurt…

Vaccines are safe, with few risks, and necessary.

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