Health: Measles Is Back, And Vaccinations Are Still The Best Defense

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Health

Though it was technically eliminated from the United States in 2000, measles is making a comeback. And public health officials say it’s a reminder of the importance of vaccinations.

The pages of the Chatham Monitor from the 1800s show many references to measles, both in its coverage of families who reported cases and in the many elixirs and tonics advertised to treat the disease. Before the development of the vaccine and its widespread use starting in 1963, measles was a fact of life for many families, affecting as many as three or four million people in the U.S. each year.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, measles spreads more easily than almost any other infectious disease, carried by droplets from coughs, sneezes or even speech. Those droplets can remain airborne for up to two hours, and readily infect un-vaccinated people who breathe them in. Symptoms mimic a cold or the flu, with a cough, high fever, runny nose and red, watery eyes eventually giving way to a red, blotchy rash that starts on the face and then spreads to the rest of the body. Most at risk are children under age 5, adults over 20, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

While the current outbreaks are localized, they are a good reminder that the disease hasn’t been completely eradicated, Chatham Health Agent Judith Giorgio said. Several years ago, she saw estimates of the percentage of vaccinated people in each town in the Commonwealth, “and Chatham, in particular, was on the low side,” she said. At the time, there were several parents who had declined to have their children immunized.

Vaccinations are required for children who attend public school, but waivers are provided for parents who object on religious grounds, “and I don’t believe there is any standard of proof for that,” Giorgio said.

A highly successful vaccination program caused the number of measles cases to plummet in the U.S., but the disease remains endemic in other parts of the world, where it claims tens of thousands of lives annually. When people from these areas visit the U.S., the disease can take hold in places where vaccination rates are low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports nine outbreaks around the nation, including certain counties in New York where there are more than 200 confirmed cases centered around a community of Orthodox Jews.

According to state officials, a person diagnosed with measles went to various Cape locations between March 26 and March 28, and was at the Whole Foods store in Hyannis on the 28th between 11:55 a.m. and 2:05 p.m. People who were at that store during those times likely would have developed symptoms several weeks ago, and there are no reports of new cases on the Cape.

Children should receive their first dose of measles vaccine, usually included with vaccines against mumps and rubella, before the age of 15 months, with a second dose before they enter school. Adults should have at least one dose of vaccine, unless they are in a high-risk group like international travelers, health care workers and college students. Adults born before 1957 are considered immune to the disease from past exposures.

Younger adults should check their medical records, and if they are unsure, can get re-vaccinated. An additional dose of MMR vaccine is not harmful, officials say.

“It can help, but it can’t hurt,” Giorgio said. The vaccine is very effective; two doses provide about 97 percent protection, and one dose is about 93 percent effective.

Despite ample scientific evidence to the contrary, rumors persist that challenge the safety of childhood vaccinations.

“It’s difficult,” Giorgio said. “People are set with their ideas and believe what they want to believe. But I think education is the best tool we have,” she said. The CDC provides comprehensive information about vaccines at www.CDC.gov/vaccines. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes an outbreak to boost vaccination rates.

“When you get communities that have an outbreak and people are getting ill, that helps people understand the need for the vaccine,” Giorgio said. “I think we’re seeing that in Brooklyn, where some of the Orthodox people are now getting vaccinated.”