From Joseph M. Kontra, MD, Chief of Infectious Diseases and Director of Infection Prevention

Seemingly out of nowhere, the number of measles cases in the United States has reached its highest level in 25 years, with 940 cases in 26 states reported through May 24. Pennsylvania is among this unfortunate list, with cases confirmed in Allegheny County.

At Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, we are preparing for what could be the inevitable arrival of cases in Lancaster.

Measles is the most contagious infection on earth. The disease spreads easily and rapidly through airborne droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is so contagious that a full 90 percent of non-immune persons, even when exposed briefly to a measles patient, will become infected. As one illustration, in 2015 a single measles-infected person at a theme park in California resulted in 147 cases of measles not only in California but spreading to other states, as well as to Canada and Mexico, as exposed persons returned home.

Measles is a miserable disease for children to experience. It is not a mild, harmless illness. The fever, cough, red eyes, runny nose and sore throat are difficult for young children to tolerate. And measles can be much more severe in some children, resulting in pneumonia, blindness, brain swelling and death.

In the decade prior to the 1963 availability of the vaccine, an estimated 4 million people in the United States got measles each year.  Out of the 549,000 average annual reported cases, there were 48,000 hospitalizations, 1,000 cases of brain swelling resulting in chronic disability, and 495 deaths.

There is no cure. The only prevention is immunity to the virus. The MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is recommended for children at 12-15 months of age, with a second dose at least 28 days later, or by age 4-6 years.

Unfortunately, we are seeing a rise across the United States in the number of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children against measles.

There is a lot of misinformation out there regarding the safety of the MMR vaccine. There is absolutely no scientific link between the MMR vaccine and autism spectrum disorder. The now-infamous study purporting such a link from 1998 was subsequently debunked and withdrawn by the journal that published it.  Since then there have been many studies confirming the MMR vaccine’s safety and reinforcing its effectiveness in preventing measles. In fact, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control has calculated that from 2000 to 2015, the MMR vaccine prevented more than 20 million measles deaths worldwide.

Parents who refuse the measles vaccine for their children should also understand that they are putting at risk not only their own children but others, including newborn babies. Measles also can infect adults, especially pregnant women and those whose immune systems are weakened by other diseases.

In the United States, the documented immunization rate is about 92 percent. This is below the 95 percent threshold needed to prevent large-scale spread, and to protect children too young to get immunized or those rare individuals who are truly allergic to, and cannot receive, the MMR vaccine. In Lancaster County, according to reporting in LNP, 9.5 percent of students have obtained exemptions from vaccination, increasing the susceptibility of the county population to an outbreak.

We should not underestimate the potential consequences of a measles outbreak in Lancaster County. LG Health stands ready to respond. Medical practices throughout our system are ready to provide counseling and any needed immunizations. Our ChildProtect program offers free immunizations to those on Medical Assistance or without health insurance.

The next ChildProtect event will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.  June 18 at Garden Spot Fire Rescue, 339 East Main St., New Holland. No appointment is necessary, but parents should bring their child’s immunization record. You may also call 717-544-3807 to find out other locations, dates and times. If you are concerned about your own immunization status, please speak with your doctor.

Measles has returned to Pennsylvania. We have both an individual and a community responsibility to make sure that we are properly immunized. We must protect not only our loved ones but our entire community from this dangerous infection.

For additional information visit CDC/measles.

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