Beware: 2011 is on track to be the worst year for measles cases in more than a decade. Although the Centers for Disease Control declared the highly infectious and potentially fatal disease “eliminated” from the US in the early 2000s, it continues to spread, with the highest number of cases this early in the year since 1996, the CDC reported this week. Here’s the scoop on the outbreak and how to protect yourself and your family.
How extensive is the outbreak? In the first 19 weeks of this year, 118 cases in 23 states have been reported, compared to a median of 56 cases a year between 2001 and 2008, according to the CDC. That means that in just five months, there have been more than double the number of cases that normally occur in an entire year. 40 percent of patients required hospitalization, with babies and kids under age five the most severely affected. In Europe, there’s been a far larger outbreak, with 33 countries battling measles. France has been hit by an epidemic of nearly 10,000 cases in the first four months of 2011.
What’s behind the rise? 90% of the current cases were “imported” into the US by travelers who visited countries with measles outbreaks, then brought the infection home, sometimes spreading the virus to other people. Almost all of the cases were in people who hadn’t been vaccinated. Another factor in the outbreak is some parents’ unfounded worries about vaccination, due to the now thoroughly disproven belief that the vaccine might cause autism. Extensive research by the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the CDC have shown no link to autism.
How contagious is measles? Measles is extremely contagious and easily spread through the air. Up to 90 percent of unvaccinated people who are exposed to the measles virus fall ill. People with the disease harbor the virus in the mucus of their nose and throat and spread it through airborne droplets when they cough, sneeze or talk. Not only can other people inhale the spray and get sick, but it can land on surfaces, where the virus remains contagious for several hours. Long after an infected person has left the area, you can catch the disease by touching contaminated objects and then rubbing your eyes, nose or mouth.
What are the symptoms? 10 to 12 days after exposure, people typically develop fever, coughing, runny nose, pinkeye, and sore throat. Two to three days later, white spots erupt in the mouth (Koplik’s spots, a well-known sign of the disease), followed by fever that can spike up to 105 degrees. A blotchy, mildly itchy red rash typically starts on the face and rapidly migrates downward. The disease is contagious four days before the telltale rash begins and remains contagious for four days after the rash vanishes.
How serious is measles? Up to 20 percent of measles patients suffer complications, ranging from ear infection to bronchitis, pneumonia, laryngitis, and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain that can lead to convulsions, coma or death). About one in 1,000 measles sufferers is stricken with this complication and one in 1,000 dies. Encephalitis can also cause long-term neurological problems and may strike soon after measles or years later. In pregnant women, measles can trigger miscarriage or preterm birth. Unlike German measles (rubella), regular measles isn’t linked to birth defects.
What is the best prevention? The CDC recommends vaccinating kids with the first dose of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine at 12 to 15 months of age, followed by a second dose at ages 4 to 6. The vaccine is more than 95 percent effective—and saves lives. Before it was available, 3 to 4 million Americans came down with measles annually, of whom 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized and 1,000 were chronically disabled from encephalitis. In countries where vaccine isn’t widely available, the disease killed 242,000 people, mainly kids, in 2006.
Do adults need vaccination? The CDC advises that adults get the MMR shot if they weren’t previously vaccinated with two doses and attend college, work in a medical facility, travel internationally or are women of childbearing age. You don’t need the shot if:
You were born before 1957
Blood tests show that you’re immune to measles, mumps and rubella
You already had two doses of the MMR vaccine or one dose of MMR plus a second dose of the measles vaccine; or you had one dose of MMR and are at low risk for measles exposure.