What Parents Need to Know About the Measles Outbreak

Fifteen years after the highly contagious disease was eradicated in the United States, a recent measles resurgence has left some parents fearful and confused about what it all means for their children and put a spotlight on those who opt out of public school immunization requirements for various reasons.

Prior to the measles vaccination, which became available in 1963, millions contracted the disease each year and hundreds died. The number of people infected by the current outbreak, which infected more than 100 people at Disneyland and has spread to 14 states, includes more cases in January of this year than the yearly average since 2000. Last year had the highest number of cases reported, 644, and this year will likely be more.

“It’s the most transmissible virus we know,” says Scientist Roberto Cattaneo, PhD, who has studied the virus for the past 30 years. The virus travels through the air from a cough or sneeze and it can stay active for up to two hours. “Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And infected people can spread measles up to four days before they begin to show symptoms, making the spread of the virus even harder to control.

Here are some key considerations for parents:

Who is at Risk?

Anyone who has not been vaccinated is at risk of contracting the virus, but unvaccinated children are most at risk. Unvaccinated people who travel internationally and those with a vitamin A deficiency are more susceptible. While 97 percent of people who are vaccinated will be protected from the disease, there are some in the population who cannot be vaccinated, and others who choose not to be immunized, which makes them vulnerable. Babies less than one year old cannot be vaccinated because their immune systems are not ready, and some children and adults have medical conditions, such as leukemia, that prevent them from receiving a vaccination.

Can a Vaccinated Adult or Child Still Get Measles?

While the vaccine is 97 percent effective, there is a 3 percent chance that a vaccinated person could become infected. It is a rare occurrence and may be because some people’s immune systems do not respond to the vaccine. Fortunately, if a vaccinated person does contract the disease, it is usually a mild case.

What are the Symptoms?

The symptoms of measles usually appear within 10 to 14 days after exposure. Symptoms include fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, inflamed eyes and a skin rash with red spots and blotches. The disease can sometimes result in pneumonia, encephalitis, brain damage, and deafness.

How Should You Protect Your Baby?

Babies under one year are usually not vaccinated, but CDC officials say it is still safe to travel and go to public places with an unvaccinated baby (although be aware that measles is far more common in some countries, such as the Philippines, due to fewer immunizations). Also, if you live in a state with active cases, such as Southern California, you may want to be more cautious. Avoid people with coughs, be discerning about who holds your baby, and avoid children who have not received the measles vaccine.

What Precautions Can You Take for Your Child?

Since the vaccine is 97 percent effective, children who have been immunized have a very low risk of contracting the virus. However, if a child has not been, or cannot be, immunized, parents may want to limit the child’s exposure to other children. Online learning is one option that is especially helpful for children who are combatting illness or who have weakened immune systems. The online learning environment provides parents with greater control over the social situations their children will be exposed to. Parents of vulnerable children may also want to avoid large crowds and airports.

Where Has Measles Been Reported After the Recent Outbreak?

In the month of January, 102 cases have been reported in the following 14 states:

New York
South Dakota

These cases were mostly linked to the outbreak in Disneyland, caused by an unvaccinated 17-year old who had contracted measles while visiting London.

Do Schools Require Immunizations?

Students are required to be up-to-date on all vaccinations before enrolling in public school; however children may opt out of vaccinations for medical reasons. With the exception of Mississippi and West Virginia, state laws also allow exemptions to the vaccination for religious reasons and approximately 20 states allow parents to opt out of vaccinations for philosophical reasons.

What is Behind the Choice Not to Vaccinate?

Some parents choose not to vaccinate their children, due to religious objections or over concerns about the vaccination itself. Some parents fear that the measles vaccination could cause autism in children, a suggestion made by a study published in 1998. The British medical journal that published the study has since retracted it, after a medical panel concluded that the author of the study, Andrew Wakefield, had been dishonest and violated research ethics rules. The retraction “builds on the overwhelming body of research by the world’s leading scientists that concludes there is no link between M.M.R. vaccine and autism,” said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, some parents remain concerned and choose to avoid the vaccination for their children. These concerned parents are not so much “anti-vaccine,” as they are “vaccine-anxious,” says Mark Largent, author of Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America. Unfortunately, the rising number of people who are choosing not to vaccinate their children are putting those who are unable to be vaccinated (babies and those with medical conditions) at a greater risk as the virus is more likely to spread.

For more information on this recent outbreak, and to stay informed of changes, visit the CDC Frequently Asked Questions site.


Image Credit – Dave Haygarth / CC by 2.0

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