Headlines are abuzz with news of the most recent measles outbreak. As of March 21, 2019, there were 314 reported cases in the U.S. for the year. This is the third highest number of cases in over ten years, and it’s only March. These cases are spread over 15 states, including Texas, but a large number of them are in Rockland County, NY.
In Rockland County, health officials have declared a public health emergency and have banned unvaccinated children from public spaces in an effort to contain the outbreak. This means no daycare or school, church functions, restaurants or grocery stores, or anywhere more than 10 people are expected to congregate.
This situation is particularly alarming when you consider that measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. Let’s look at some facts about measles and the measles vaccine.
What is Measles?
Measles, or rubeola, is a serious disease caused by a virus. It starts as a respiratory infection, with cough, runny nose, watery eyes, and a high fever. After three to five days with these symptoms, the rash appears.
Because the earliest symptoms are more generic and don’t include a rash, an individual with measles often doesn’t know they have the disease. They may continue with their regular activities and therefore expose everyone they come into contact with to the disease. This is problematic because measles is highly contagious. When a person is contagious (beginning three to five days before a rash appears) up to 90 percent of their non-immune contacts will become infected.
Having measles alone will make an individual quite sick. In addition, there are serious complications that may result from the disease. According to the CDC, one in 20 children will develop pneumonia which is the most common cause of death among children with measles.
In addition, one in 1,000 will develop encephalitis. This swelling of the brain can lead to long term disability and death.
Roughly one in 1,000 of those infected will die from measles.
Measles and German Measles are Two Different Diseases
Another viral disease that causes a rash is the “German Measles,” or rubella. This is a different disease that usually causes a mild illness for about three days. You may have even heard someone say, “I had the measles, and it wasn’t that bad.” Mostly likely it was German measles (rubella) and not measles (rubeola).
Although rubella causes a milder disease, it is still dangerous. It can cause devastating damage to a fetus when an expectant mother is infected.
Immunization for measles is typically achieved through a two-shot series of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. The first shot is recommended at 12 to 15 months of age, and the second at age four to six.
Lack of immunization is the major reason for recent outbreaks. In Rockland County, over 82 percent of those infected had no measles vaccine. About four percent had one of the recommended two immunizations. Another four percent had completed the two shot series. The immunization history of the remaining ten percent is unclear.
Besides those who have not been fully vaccinated, which includes babies and young children who aren’t old enough for the recommended immunizations, there are other groups at high risk for measles. These include pregnant women, the elderly, and those with a compromised immune system. A compromised immune system may result from certain medications, chemotherapy, age, and disease.
The measles vaccine is 97 percent effective after both shots in the series, and when those who are able to receive the vaccine do so, the entire community is protected. But when the number of vaccinated individuals falls, measles is able to gain a foothold. Being highly contagious, it can cause an outbreak quickly.
Get Your Measles Questions Answered
We know that there have been many concerns over the safety of the measles vaccine. Rest assured that the vaccine has been studied at length and administered to hundreds of millions of people worldwide. It is estimated by the World Health Organization that widespread use of the vaccine prevented over 21 million deaths from 2000 to 2017.
At Hunt Regional Medical Partners, we are happy to sit down and discuss the pros and cons of the measles or any other vaccine. Please make an appointment with any of our Hunt County offices to get honest, up-to-date advice on your healthcare needs.