In recent months, the news has began covering small outbreaks of a disease that has mostly become unfamiliar to our society—measles. This virus causes cold-like symptoms—fevers, cough, sore throat, and inflamed eyes—which makes it difficult to distinguish from other common illnesses. However, the distinguishing symptom is the development of a specific type of rash which normally starts at the hairline and moves downward.
The complications of the disease range from the previously mentioned to neurological impairment and even death. The two most ominous complications are encephalitis (brain swelling) or a long-term infection of the nervous system that slowly causes deterioration to the brain (SSPE). Both of these complications can lead to death. In fact, 1 out of 4 people who contract the measles virus will require hospitalization.
Previous to our era, measles was a common virus infection that dates back to the 9th century. Before the release of its vaccine in 1963, approximately 3 to 4 million people (in the US) were infected every year—nearly all children were infected before the age of 15. As well as nearly 500 people a year died from the illness. The disease was so prevalent due to its incredible infectious nature. 9 out of 10 people exposed to an infectious individual will become infected. The transmission can happen via contact or simply via breathing the same air in a room. In fact, the virus’ presence continues up to 2 hours after the infected person leaves a room.
Upon the vaccine’s release, reports of infections fell by the thousands. In the 1980s, the CDC planned to eradicate the disease by increasing the required administrations to 2 occasions. With this practice, in the year 2000, the disease was considered “eliminated.” This means that no cases had been observed for a 12-month period. Since then, cases have ranged from 63 to 667 a year. Most of these infections are due to international travelers who may have not received the vaccine and enter the USA already sick. In the year 2019, we have already seen 940 reported cases…and we’re only half way through the year.
Often, doctors are asked if the patient is immune to the measles virus or not. Generally speaking, if a person was born before 1957, they are immune because the were likely exposed to the virus. However, doctors can draw blood and test if you have immunity or not. No vaccine is perfect, but individuals who have received two doses of the vaccine are 97% likely to never contract the virus.
Nearly all individuals who are over the age of 1 are recommended to receive the vaccine. If someone plans to travel internationally, it is recommended that you have received the vaccine at least 2 weeks in advance. Those who should not consider receiving the vaccine are those who have compromised immune systems due to treatments of disease (chemotherapy, steroids, HIV, etc.…) or if the individual is pregnant.
Measles is a serious and very infectious disease that can easily be prevented with a vaccine. If you have questions or concerns, feel free to speak with your doctor to make the right choice for yourself and your family.
Kelsey Allen, D.O., is a family medicine physician at Mountain View Medical Clinic in Enterprise. Mountain Medicine is a collaboration between Ron Polk and Allen.