Ask any physician in the year 2000, and they would have told you that measles had been all but eliminated in the United States. But today, health officials claim that the U.S. faces the worst year for measles in more than a decade, arguing that people who refuse to vaccinate their children are to blame for the increase.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that while more than 90 percent of children today are vaccinated, 92 percent of people infected with measles last year were not. The largest outbreak (58 cases) in the U.S. occurred in 2013 in a New York community where many refused to be vaccinated for religious reasons.
A recent measles outbreak in Ohio infected 68 people, helping push 2014 to the highest total in 18 years. The CDC reported 187 cases of measles in the U.S. between Jan. 1 and May 9.
This latest outbreak began with a group who had visited the Philippines, where more than 20,000 cases of measles have been reported this year. American doctors initially misdiagnosed the illness as Dengue fever, as few cases of the disease have been seen since the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was introduced in the U.S. in 1971.
Because the disease is so rare in the U.S., many parents today do not recognize the telltale fever and blotchy rash symptoms or realize how dangerous measles can be.
“Measles is a serious disease,” CDC director Tom Frieden said. “It is so contagious that if one person has it, 9 of 10 people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.”
CDC describes measles as a highly contagious viral illness spread through the air by breathing, coughing or sneezing. It can be spread from four days before a rash appears to four days afterward. The virus can live on surfaces for up to two hours, easily transmitted by children putting their fingers in their mouth after touching an infected surface.
People who are infected with measles suffer:
- fever (as high as 104 degrees),
- runny nose,
- rash all over the body>/li>
While the illness itself is unpleasant, its complications can be dangerous. Children with measles may get ear infections that can lead to permanent hearing loss, and one out of 20 gets pneumonia. Measles-infected women who are pregnant are at risk for miscarriage or premature delivery.
According to the Mayo Clinic, if you’ve already had measles, your body has built up immunity to the virus.
Measles can sometimes be fatal. While it is rare in the U.S., nearly 164,000 people die each year around the world from measles. One in 1,000 children who contract measles gets encephalitis (inflammation of the brain that can lead to convulsions, and can leave a child deaf or mentally disabled), and about one out of 1,000 dies from the disease.
Before the MMR vaccine was introduced in the U.S., nearly all children got measles by the time they reached the age of 15. Each year during that time, about 450-500 people died from measles; 48,000 were hospitalized; 7,000 had seizures; and about 1,000 suffered permanent brain damage or deafness, according to the CDC.
Vaccinations continue to be a controversial topic among parents, with some concerned about possible links between the MMR vaccine and autism. The CDC reports that in 2010, the medical journal The Lancet retracted a controversial 1998 paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism. The study had been discredited, and its author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was found to have acted unethically in conducting the research.
“Anyone who is not protected against measles is at risk of getting infected,” CDC’s Frieden said. “Unvaccinated people put themselves and others at risk for measles and its serious complications.”
Nearly 10 million doses of the MMR vaccine are distributed each year. The CDC recommends two doses: one at 12-15 months of age and the second at 4-6 years of age. In 2005, a vaccine for varicella (chicken pox) was combined with the measles- mumps-rubella (German measles) vaccine. Your child’s doctor can help you decide between getting the MMR and Varicella vaccines separately, and getting the single MMRV vaccine.
CDC offers the following information: