Measles Outbreaks: A Reminder of Why We Vaccinate

Author: Paige Blatchford, Clinical Pharmacist

Measles Outbreaks Infographic

The recent increase in measles outbreaks is both concerning and frustrating for many parents, healthcare providers and community members across the U.S. Measles is a highly contagious infection that can lead to serious health complications. Although the disease had nearly been eliminated from the U.S., it’s still making people sick. It’s important to remember why we vaccinate ourselves and our families to protect against measles and other preventable diseases.

Recent Measles Outbreaks

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tracks measles cases and outbreaks, updating their data every week. As of March 7, 2019 there have been six measles outbreaks in the U.S. this year. An outbreak is defined as three or more individual cases. So far in 2019 there have been cases in California; five cases in Illinois; 11 cases in Texas; 72 cases in Washington; 145 confirmed cases in Rockland County, NY; and 158 cases in New York City, NY.

In Rockland County, over 80 percent of people with measles had not been vaccinated. In Washington, health officials have declared a state of emergency in response to the measles outbreak. Many of the infected children in the area traveled to public places such as the Portland International Airport and the arena where the Portland professional basketball team plays.

Measles is one of the most contagious preventable diseases. If one person gets infected with the virus, 90% of the people close to them will get infected unless they are immune. Someone with measles is contagious for about eight days total. These eight days usually include four days before a rash is visible and four days after the rash begins. This means the measles virus can spread before you even realize you’re sick. Measles symptoms often start with general signs of fever, cough or runny nose before you develop a rash. The measles virus can live the air for two hours where an infected person coughed or sneezed.

The Measles Threat and Vaccine Hesitancy

In 2000, the CDC declared that measles was eliminated from the U.S., but people are still getting sick from it. One way measles continues to infect people in the United States is from travelers and unvaccinated individuals. If someone carries the disease back to the states after traveling in another country, people who have not been vaccinated can get the measles and continue to spread this contagious virus. In rare cases, people who have vaccine-immunity can get infected with the virus and continue its spread.

In 2019 WHO named vaccine hesitancy in their top 10 threats to global health. When people don’t get vaccinated, diseases can spread quickly and make people sick. An increase in unvaccinated people is one of a number of reasons there has been a resurgence of measles outbreaks.

Measles Vaccine Safety and Effectiveness

The measles vaccine was developed in the 1960s. Since then, the vaccine has been rigorously tested and repeatedly studied. Time and time again, the measles vaccine proves to be the safest and most effective way to prevent the disease.The recommended two doses of the measles vaccine are 97% effective.

Although it’s known to be effective in preventing measles and other diseases, many people do not get vaccinated. One reason is because of the widespread belief that vaccines cause autism. This claim is based on fraudulent, unproven research. The clinician who originally published the false study lost his medical license. The American Academy of Pediatrics provides a comprehensive list of accurate, well-designed studies that prove the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

Vaccination prevents nearly 3 million deaths every year and is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In general, everyone should get the measles vaccine. If you are pregnant, allergic or have a weak immune system, ask your doctor about whether or not your should get vaccinated. Certain medications can weaken your immune system, which means you may not want to get vaccinated while taking them. Ask your pharmacist at Amber Pharmacy if your medications could affect your decision to get vaccinated.

Weak Immune Systems and the Measles

Measles can be especially dangerous for people with weak immune systems. This population includes older adults and people with cancer, HIV and other chronic conditions that can weaken the immune system. Additionally, even healthy infants can’t get the measles vaccine until they are at least one year old, so they are also at a higher risk of contracting a serious case of the measles. Most measles-related deaths occur in children under five years old. The American Academy of Pediatrics updates their recommended immunization schedule each year. You can view the latest recommendations on their website. Your pharmacist at Amber Pharmacy can tell you if your medications increase your risk of measles and other infections due to a weakened immune system.

If you are traveling outside the U.S., make sure your vaccinations are up to date. Travelers can easily contract the measles virus abroad and carry it home to infect others. Talk to your doctor about getting a measles shot and other vaccinations that can help you stay healthy abroad and protect your loved ones when you get home. Depending on your destination, you may need additional vaccinations. You can review the recommended list of vaccines for your travel destination on the CDC website.

Herd Immunity and Measles Vaccinations

Herd immunity describes when a majority of people are vaccinated and everyone is protected because of it. This protection includes people who are unable to get the vaccine. It is because of herd immunity that infants and people with compromised immune systems are protected. When vaccination rates in a community are high enough, measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases are less likely to spread. It’s important to keep vaccination rates high for measles and other vaccines to protect everyone in the community.

Natural Immunity and the Measles

Some people argue the natural immunity that comes from surviving an infection, such as measles, is better protection than a vaccination. However, vaccines are the safest way to protect against measles for you and for the people around you. Natural immunity puts your health at risk, and, since measles is highly contagious, it can cause someone else to get sick. Natural immunity is one of several common misconceptions about vaccines.

Getting the Measles Vaccine

Check your immunization records to determine whether you have received the measles vaccine, also known as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. If you received both doses of the measles vaccine as a child, you are protected for life and probably do not need a booster shot.

It’s important to seek trustworthy sources and make an informed decision about vaccinations. Keep in mind the information shared on social media may not be accurate. If you have questions about the measles vaccine or other immunizations, go to a reliable source. Talk to your doctor or your pharmacist at Amber Pharmacy about how vaccinations can help keep you and your family healthy.

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