It’s important to prevent the spread of measles

Viewpoint

There have recently been multiple measles outbreaks in the U.S. and internationally. In the U.S., there have been measles clusters in multiple states with 465 new cases just between Jan. 1 and April 4. And these numbers are continuing to climb. These outbreaks are linked to travelers who brought measles back from other countries where large outbreaks are occurring and measles is still common.

We need to focus on preventing both getting and spreading measles so we can protect ourselves, our children and our community as measles is easily spread. We as a community especially need to focus on protecting people who cannot be vaccinated or at higher risk for complication, such as infants, children less than 5 years old, and people with compromised immune systems. Furthermore, once measles comes to an area, it is very difficult to contain and get rid of. Hence, prevention is much easier than trying to get rid of the disease once it enters a community.

Focusing on prevention is especially important right now given the ease of traveling across states and countries in a short amount of time, and the increased risk of spread given the upcoming holidays and summer breaks that will increase travel to and from countries with high measles rates.

First, let’s discuss what measles is. Measles is a very contagious illness caused by a virus. First symptoms include high fever, cough, runny nose and red and watery eyes. These symptoms are then followed by a rash that starts three to five days later and lasts about five to six days. Serious complications can include pneumonia, brain swelling, permanent brain damage, death, and a rare yet progressive, disabling and deadly brain disorder called Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis. There is no treatment for measles or SSPE.

Measles is spread from person to person through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is so contagious that you can catch the disease in a room where someone with measles has been up to two hours after that person is gone. Oftentimes, people with measles are contagious for a few days before they even know they have the illness.

The best way to prevent getting measles is by getting vaccinated with measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at the recommended age. The majority of people who get measles are unvaccinated. The best way to prevent spreading measles is to stay home and isolated when the early symptoms begin. It’s important to stay home from school, work, church, shopping centers, any gatherings and public places, and even from others in your household who may be at risk for measles. If you have a rash and are going to your doctor’s office, please call ahead and inform them that you have a rash illness. Then do not go into the general waiting area. If you must go out when ill, wearing a medical mask can help reduce spread but is not guaranteed.

We understand that there are many concerns around vaccine safety. Basically, though, vaccines work and have been repeatedly shown to be safe. The early research that reported autism linked to MMR vaccine has been refuted as not valid. Prior to the creation of MMR vaccine, there were 3 million to 4 million people infected with measles in the U.S. each year. Of these, between 400 and 500 people died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 suffered from encephalitis (swelling of the brain) each year. Since measles vaccination began, the U.S. has seen some years with zero cases of measles. Yet with pockets of groups refusing to immunize, measles outbreaks occurring in other countries and increases in travel across the globe, measles has been coming back into the U.S.

We each need to take the recent measles cases and outbreaks seriously to protect ourselves, our family, our children and our community. Stay up to date on your own and your children’s immunizations. If you have concerns about vaccine safety, educate yourself with facts about vaccine effectiveness and safety. See your doctor and practice isolation if you start to become ill with symptoms of measles. Please feel free to call our office for more information at (808) 984-8213.

On the net:

• DOH

health.hawaii.gov/docd/disease_listing/measles/

• CDC Traveler’s Health

wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel

* Kristin Mills is the public health educator for the Maui District Health Office. Takako Nakaaki, an epidemiology specialist with the Maui District Health Office, contributed to this Viewpoint.