It’s not just the virus, it’s what comes after.
I never used to be sick.
I assumed my good health was because I’d done all the right things. I exercised, I ate well, I didn’t smoke or drink to excess. If I got sick (rarely), I’d get over it quickly. I’d made it to 29 years old without a broken bone, and had barely spent a day in hospital. I hadn’t seen a doctor in five years (except for birth control).
So when there was a measles outbreak going around my city in 2019, of course I didn’t think I’d get it. And if I did, I was confident I’d be alright. “What are the chances? I have a strong immune system, I’ll be fine.” I wasn’t fully vaccinated as a child and never bothered catching up as an adult. I figured I’d passed the worst of the risk.
When the measles virus entered my house through a flatmate – also unvaccinated – who worked at a school I was forced to isolate in my room for 14 days. I was the only other person in our house who wasn’t vaccinated, so the others could continue their lives – going to work, to the supermarket, to meet friends as normal.
Ten days went by with no symptoms. Had I escaped it? Maybe I didn’t catch it after all and I’d just wasted two weeks of my life stuck in this sunless room? 11 days, no symptoms. 12 days, no symptoms. Day 13: a headache, body aches, a fever. It had begun.
I developed a nasty phlegmy cough, but aside from that it was just like the flu. I can handle this, I thought. I’ve had the flu before. But it wasn’t done with me yet. Around day seven of the illness – almost three weeks since my exposure event in the kitchen of our shared flat – it got significantly worse.
My skin swelled with the infamous measles rash and peeled as if burnt. My hair started falling out across my body, as well as on my head. Where it didn’t fall out, it turned white at the roots. I coughed so hard that I locked a rib out of place, making it painful to breathe and excruciating to cough. The phlegm in my throat was so thick that hocking it up was the only option – trying to swallow it made me choke and vomit anyway.
I was conscious enough to raise my phone to my face, to speak to the public health nurse on the phone, and my mum. In the few waking moments I had each day I’d check my messages and scroll Facebook for a taste of normality. An old acquaintance posted something about measles being a “positive, natural process designed to rid the body of the toxins of childbirth”. What the fuck is wrong with you, I wanted to scream.
She posted daily throughout the outbreak, telling her followers about how measles is purifying, beneficial, and healthy. “We should be able to let our children catch this, to support their immune growth.” I couldn’t imagine seeing a child going through what I was going through. How could any mother wish that on her baby?
Suddenly, she stopped posting. I found out later that her son had caught measles and was in intensive care at the hospital.
Looking back on it now, I should have gone to the hospital myself as my symptoms continued to worsen and it became harder to swallow and breathe through the dense phlegm in my throat and the pain in my ribs. At night, I wondered if I’d wake up in the morning or if I’d choke in my sleep. I don’t know why I didn’t go – I think I was too scared to acknowledge that I couldn’t fight this on my own.
My poor partner spent every minute he could by my side, doing what he could to soothe me; helping me walk to the bathroom when I could barely make it on my own, watching me suffer and being unable to do much at all to help.
A month later, I was well enough to leave the house for the first time. I’d spent a month in bed though, and my muscles had severely deteriorated. Walking a block to the local park was a mission, and required an hour-long rest at each end.
But that isn’t the end of my story.
You see, measles can cause long-term damage to your body for months, and in my case years, after the virus has passed.
Measles can trigger “immune amnesia”, where the body forgets how to fight the many viruses it’s previously built defences against. It wiped my immune system back to a blank slate. I caught every bug that was going around, and was sick with something new almost every month. I struggled to regain my pre-sickness energy and rebuild my physical strength to what it was before.
But that’s still not the end of the story.
The disruption to my immune system also caused it to turn on itself, and almost exactly a year later I was diagnosed with an auto-immune condition called Graves Disease. I thought that the measles was the sickest I’d ever been, until I got Graves. My symptom list was extensive and included migraines, shortness of breath, tachycardia and palpitations, dizziness, nausea, confusion, memory loss, loss of balance and coordination, constant hunger, weight loss, double vision, muscle aches, temporary paralysis and cognitive dysfunction.
It progressed terrifyingly fast. By the time I was diagnosed I was severely thyrotoxic and incapable of working, leaving the house, or completing basic tasks. I was put on a heavy dosage of 15 pills a day, to quickly bring my thyroid back into check.
That was almost a year ago, October 2020.
I’m only taking one pill a day now, but still have to get monthly blood tests. I’ve seen a cardiologist, neurologist, endocrinologist, naturopath, osteopath, counsellor, and GP. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on my health, in a desperate attempt to reclaim what was lost. I’ve had teams of friends and loved ones watching over me, checking in on me, and making sure I’m okay. I’m fine, I tell them, I’m lucky it’s not worse. I’m grateful the doctors figured it out, and that the medication works. I was always the optimist.
But I can’t work full time without triggering a relapse. I can’t leave the house too many days in a row. I have to carefully plan my week so I don’t overdo it. My days are structured to allow for rest between each task, and an extra long lunch break to sleep if I need to. Out of the past twelve months, I’ve been in bed unable to work for five.
I’m now in the “at risk” group when it comes to Covid-19, and I hear the delta variant can be as contagious as measles. I can’t imagine what it would do to my body if I caught it, or what it’s doing to millions of others worldwide – we already know about the prevalence of long Covid, but what other long-term issues could it be creating, if we survive?
That same Facebook acquaintance is still posting, telling people that Covid is just another flu, and that we should trust our “natural” immune systems to protect us. I hope that this time it doesn’t take her son’s hospitalisation or worse for her to realise how wrong she is.
If I had known then what measles would do to me, what Graves would do to me, and that I could have potentially avoided all of it with a simple vaccination, I would have done it. But no, I didn’t see the urgency. What are the chances? I’m healthy, I’m young, it won’t be me.