Measles Outbreaks Highlight the Importance of Vaccination

little girl getting a shot

Measles outbreaks occur periodically throughout the country, underscoring three things we need to keep top of mind: measles can spread quickly, complications can be serious, and vaccination is important.

Measles Symptoms and Complications

Measles is a virus that causes high fever, a cough, runny nose, red, watery eyes, tiny white spots inside the mouth, and a red rash that starts on the face and spreads all over the body. The disease lasts about two weeks.

Complications can be serious, including pneumonia and encephalitis, which can cause long-term deafness or brain damage. It’s estimated that one in 5,000 people who get measles will die.

Measles is most contagious when an infected person coughs or sneezes, but the virus can also linger on surfaces for up to two hours. About 90 percent of people who don’t have immunity to measles will get sick if they’re exposed.

The Measles Vaccine

While there is supportive treatment for measles, no cure exists. A vaccine became available in 1967, and by 2000, we felt the disease had been eliminated in this country. Before the vaccine became commonplace, millions of people contracted measles every year and several hundred died from it.

The majority of us are fortunate not to have seen measles at its worst. We don’t remember how ill family members and friends got from this infection prior to the introduction of the vaccine. We have taken for granted what we do not commonly see. This, along with concerns over potential side effects, caused some lay people to think there was less need for vaccination.

Now, we’re seeing resurgences, and it’s disturbing. The majority of people who get the disease during outbreaks are unvaccinated. This is a major public health concern.

Who Should Be Vaccinated?

Immunization guidelines call for children to get two doses of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine—one at 12 to 15 months of age and the second at 4 to 6 years (or sooner as long as it’s at least 28 days after the first dose).

Adults who never had measles as a child or did not receive the MMR vaccine can be vaccinated. CDC guidelines have more specific recommendations for adults.

Vaccination Rates Are Falling

Despite the effectiveness of the vaccine, not all children are vaccinated per the recommendations. For the 2017-2018 school year, only 92.2% of students were vaccinated. For a community to be protected, vaccination rates should exceed 95%, according to the CDC.

Low vaccination rates mean the virus has a better chance to get through a community and infect the unprotected—babies under a year old who are too young to receive the vaccine and anyone else who can’t be immunized because of another medical condition.

Vaccination is Safe

Unfortunately, more and more parents aren’t getting their children the recommended vaccinations for measles and other diseases for reasons ranging from religious beliefs to the now disproven theory that vaccines contribute to autism.

In fact, a 12-year study of two measles vaccines by Kaiser Permanente, a large health care provider and insurer, found the vaccines were unlikely to contribute to serious adverse outcomes and that parents should be reassured of the vaccines’ safety.

Take Action

No one needs to become seriously ill–or die–from a disease that is entirely preventable. When you immunize your child, you’re not just protecting him or her. You’re helping to protect the most vulnerable in our communities.

If you haven’t kept up with your children's immunizations, please see your health care provider to bring them up to date. And check with your doctor too, to make sure you have received all the immunizations that adults need, including the measles vaccine if you have no immunity.

author name

Deborah K. Riley, MD

Deborah Riley, MD, is an infectious diseases specialist with LG Health Physicians Infectious Diseases.

Education: Medical School—The Ohio State University College of Medicine; Residency—The Ohio State University Wexler Medical Center; Fellowship—University of Utah School of Medicine.

Call: 717-544-3517

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