Although measles was declared eliminated in 2000, a recent outbreak has put the highly infectious virus back in the news in recent weeks.
The large, ongoing outbreak – of which there are about 70 cases in a handful of southwestern U.S. states – has its origins at the Disneyland amusement park in southern California, says the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The confirmed cases include five Disney employees and other people who visited Disney parks in January.
Large measles outbreaks have occurred in recent years in many other countries, particularly in western Europe, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Travelers to those areas where measles circulates can bring the virus back to the United States. Also, people visiting the United States from those countries who have been infected the virus can unknowingly spread measles. Regardless of the way measles enters the United States, people exposed to the virus have a strong chance of becoming sick if they haven’t been vaccinated, health officials say.
Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease. It spreads through the air through coughing and sneezing, the CDC says. It typically begins with fever, cough, runny nose and red eyes, and within a few days a red rash appears, usually first on the face and then spreading downward to the rest of the body, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) says. The measles virus can live for up to two hours on a surface or in an airspace where the infected person coughed or sneezed. If other people breathe the contaminated air or touch the infected surface, then touch their eyes, noses, or mouths, they can become infected. Infected people can spread measles to others from about four days before to four days after the rash appears and may feel well enough to be out and about, potentially exposing others. Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune also will become infected.
The best protection you can provide for you and your children is to make sure everyone is fully vaccinated. Measles vaccines have been available in the United States since 1963, and two separate doses have been recommended since 1989. The measles vaccine is first given at age 1 along with vaccines for mumps and rubella. The second measles vaccine is typically given after the child turns 4, says pediatric infectious diseasephysician Charles Foster, MD. “A single dose of the vaccine is about 95 percent effective. Because it is not 100 percent effective, a second dose of the vaccine is recommended,” Dr. Foster says.
Two doses of measles-containing vaccine are more than 99 percent effective in preventing measles. Some children cannot get vaccinated, because they are too young or because they have medical problems that alter their body’s immune system.
The most recent outbreak comes on the heels of a watermark year for measles in the United States. In 2014, 644 cases from 27 states were reported to the CDC – the highest number of cases in more than a decade. One reason that there has been an increase in the number of cases of measles is that an increasing number of parents are declining to vaccinate their children for philosophical reasons.
Some parents also are concerned that the measles vaccine – usually combined with the mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine– may cause autism. However, large studies have shown no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, and the risks and complications associated with contracting measles can be very serious.
About three in 10 people who get measles will develop one or more complications, including pneumonia, ear infections or diarrhea. Even more serious complications may occur. Before the vaccine was available, 500,000 people – mostly children – were infected with measles every year and as many as 500 people died from it annually.
“Unfortunately, it’s estimated now that about one in 10 people in some parts of this country do not have adequate immunity to measles,” Dr. Foster says. “In some communities and schools, the rate is much higher.
For the measles virus to spread, you have to have susceptible people for the virus to spread to, Dr. Foster says. “By not vaccinating their children, these parents create an environment where it is easy for the measles virus to spread,” Dr. Foster says. “It’s very sad when one of these children gets measles, because they are vulnerable and at much higher risk for complications. A decision to not vaccinate a child places all children at higher risk of getting measles.”