Herd immunity drops, allowing measles to sneak back

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Herd immunity drops, allowing measles to sneak back

Clinically known as rubeola, measles is a dangerous disease that can be fatal. It once affected between three and four million people in the U.S. each year. Upwards of 500 people died, and about 48,000 people ended up in the hospital due to complications from the disease annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Then, in 1963, a highly effective measles vaccination program changed everything. With widespread vaccination, measles eventually went the way of smallpox, virtually disappearing. In fact, in 2000, the Centers for Disease Control declared the elimination of measles in the U.S.

Just 16 years later, it’s back.

As of early August 2016, Arizona saw 22 confirmed cases of measles. What’s to blame for the return of this highly contagious disease?

The growing trend among parents to bypass vaccinating their children is the culprit, according to health experts from across the country, including Matthew Bean, MD, an HonorHealth Medical Group primary care physician in Phoenix.

Misguided philosophy

The anti-vaccine philosophy — opting out of vaccines in hopes of preventing exposure to potential dangers — is misguided, Dr. Bean says. You weaken the immune system and leave the body ill prepared to deal with threats when you choose to:

  • Avoid exposing children to germs.
  • Create an overly sterile environment.
  • Limit or avoid vaccination altogether.
Like all infectious disease vaccines, the measles vaccine is only effective with the immunization of the entire population. While a select few individuals can’t receive a vaccine due to certain health conditions or other complications, the larger herd of vaccinated people protects those few. But when too many people aren’t vaccinated, holes crop up in that layer of protection, and disease outbreaks occur. That’s what’s happening today.

Dr. Bean describes measles as a highly contagious airborne viral illness passed through coughing, sneezing or coming into contact with saliva or mucous from an infected person. It can take up to 21 days after exposure for symptoms to appear. Signs of a rash usually occurs about four days after other symptoms surface.

Symptoms and complications

Measles generally presents like a cold with symptoms including runny nose, red eyes, sore throat and high fevers of 104 degrees or greater. Measles also includes sensitivity to light, spots in the mouth and a red bumpy rash that spreads downward from the face.

A small group of people develops pneumonia, the most common cause of death; bowel infections; and neurologic conditions. One devastating complication is that this painful and degenerative disease can, over the course of about seven to 10 years, lead to blindness, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain and nervous system), heart damage and other pulmonary issues, and death.

There’s no treatment for measles other than supportive comfort care. If you’re infected, you’re quarantined until four days after the rash develops to prevent spreading the disease. Vitamin A has shown to help minimize symptoms, but the disease continues to live dormant in the infected person.

The measles vaccine is highly effective. Only about three in every 100 vaccinated individuals contract the measles virus. While it’s still possible for vaccinated individuals to get measles, they usually develop a milder form, and they’re less likely to pass it on to others.

To learn more about measles vaccination and other childhood vaccines, talk to your HonorHealth doctor or call 623-580-5800 to find a doctor who can help.