With more cases being reported regularly, we’re in the midst of the worst measles outbreak since 1994. We spoke to two Atrium Health Levine Children’s pediatricians about the precautions parents should take.
In 2000, the viral infection known as measles was declared “eliminated” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. But nearly two decades later, measles is back, with 764 individual cases being found in 23 states over the course of 2019.
It’s the biggest outbreak of measles since 1994 and — although there have been no cases found in the Carolinas — parents should be aware of the risks as they organize summer travel plans. That’s why we spoke to two pediatric doctors from Atrium Health Levine Children's about getting vaccinated and staying healthy in the midst of this outbreak.
Common symptoms, serious risks
The initial symptoms of measles are fairly familiar — you’ll see fever, runny nose and red eyes, which aren’t all that different from your typical cold symptoms. But what tends to set measles apart is the rash that starts to form a few days after the onset of a fever. It’s most common in children, though measles is typically fairly uncommon due to the effective Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) Vaccine.
“Parents need to realize that measles is extremely contagious,” says Rhonda Patt, MD of Levine Children's Charlotte Pediatrics Clinic. “It’s spread when someone coughs or sneezes in relatively close proximity to another person, and the virus remains active in the air for two hours.” The CDC reports that 9 out of 10 children who are unvaccinated and come into close contact will develop the virus.
Because measles is a viral infection rather than a bacterial infection, it can’t be treated with antibiotics. If your child does contract measles, it’s important that your child remains hydrated and has their fever treated with ibuprofen. They also must be monitored for severe complications, which can include ear infections, pneumonia and encephalitis.
What should parents know?
Pediatricians encourage parents to vaccinate their children. Children under the age of one are typically unvaccinated, which makes them particularly vulnerable. If an infant between the ages of 6-11 months is planning international travel, the recommendation is to receive their first dose of the vaccine prior to their first birthday. But if the child remains within the country, they should wait to get vaccinated after their first birthday.
Although there has been growing skepticism about the efficacy of vaccines and concerns about their alleged connection to autism, medical professionals are quick to assert that these hypotheses have been disproven by countless studies. For many pediatricians, the fear is that growing skepticism is leading to more unvaccinated children and a higher incidence of measles.
Having a large enough portion of the population vaccinated leads to a powerful concept known as “herd immunity” — a phenomenon wherein enough people are immune to a disease such that even those who aren’t immune are safe from contracting the disease. For this to occur with measles, 93-95% of the population must be immune.
Before traveling, stay informed
Measles is spreading mainly through unvaccinated individuals traveling either overseas to places where measles is more common or to other parts of the United States where cases have been found.
“My advice would be to only travel to a high-risk area if you have to,” says Lyn Nuse, MD of Levine Children's Rocky River Pediatrics. “Be wary of the risks, and try to limit travel to places that are safe and free of the infection.”
Dr. Patt reminds us that the CDC website keeps close tabs on the spread of the disease and makes this information publicly available. “Know where current outbreaks are, and realize that things change fast,” says Dr. Patt. “Parents should check the website regularly to know which areas are safe and which are experiencing an outbreak.”
For even the most experienced pediatricians, the recent rise of measles is shocking and concerning.
“I’ve been a pediatrician for 25 years and never seen a patient with measles. It’s just something we’ve never had to deal with before,” says Dr. Nuse. “So that should give you an idea of how effective the measles vaccine has been over time — and how important it is to get vaccinated.”