U.S. measles outbreaks show no signs of slowing down

Rockland County Health Department
SHOTS HERE The Rockland County Health Department in New York offered free vaccines on April 5 in the midst of an ongoing outbreak there. According to the department, 81 percent of the 184 cases in the county were in individuals who were not vaccinated.

The year has just started, but it’s already a bad one for measles. The viral disease has sickened at least 555 people in 20 states, according to numbers released April 15 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s more than the 372 cases reported for all of 2018 — and it’s only April.

If the outbreak doesn’t get under control, this year could surpass the 2014 high of 667 cases since measles was eliminated from the United States in 2000 (SN Online: 11/30/18). Elimination means that the virus is no longer endemic, or constantly present, though it can still be brought in by overseas travelers. Internationally, outbreaks are ongoing in Ukraine, Israel, the Philippines and Brazil, among other countries.

Imported disease is the just the spark. What’s fueling measles outbreaks in the United States are pockets of vulnerability in the country, especially within states that have made it easier for parents to skip vaccinating their children. As public health officials grapple with containing the disease, here’s the lowdown on this not-so-conquered virus.

Why is measles dangerous?

The first signs of an infection include a fever and cough, followed about four days later by a rash of flat, red spots. There’s no treatment for measles, other than managing symptoms with fever reducers, for example. Those who have been exposed to the virus but aren’t immunized can get vaccinated within 72 hours to protect against the illness.

Measles can lead to severe medical complications — particularly for babies and young children — including pneumonia or a swelling of the brain that may result in deafness. A decade before the vaccine became available in the United States in 1963, measles sickened around 3 million to 4 million people and killed hundreds each year.

“Measles is a bad actor,” says pediatrician and vaccine scientist Peter Hotez at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

The virus also suppresses the immune system, giving a boost to other infectious diseases. This effect persists for two to three years after a bout of measles, according to a 2015 study published in Science. So getting the measles vaccine is…

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