VIDEO: St. Joseph’s/Candler Director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine talks about the measles
This highly contagious and deadly disease has reemerged in the United States
A disease once declared eliminated in the United States is back with nearly 400 cases of the measles reported in the U.S. so far in 2019. Georgia is among the states with reported cases of measles.
Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus that infects the respiratory tract and spreads throughout the body, explains Dr. John Rowlett, St. Joseph’s/Candler Director of Pediatric Emergency Medicine. It causes cough, fever and a distinct rash that typically starts on the face and spreads across the entire body, Dr. Rowlett says.
Measles often starts with cold-like symptoms including:
- Runny nose
- Inflammation and redness of the eyes
- Tiny white spots inside the mouth
The sneaky thing about measles is that signs of the virus do not often present until four to five days after you’re infected and contagious, Dr. Rowlett says. The first symptoms that occur typically are fever and cough followed by that distinct rash. Serious complications of the measles can include blindness, brain swelling, severe diarrhea, pneumonia and death, Dr. Rowlett says.
The measles virus is spread by coughing and sneezing, close personal contact or direct contact with infected nasal or throat secretions. The virus remains active and contagious in the air or on infected surfaces for up to two hours.
“Measles is one of the most contagious diseases on the planet,” says Dr. Rowlett. “If you are exposed to measles droplets, and you haven’t had the measles before and haven’t been vaccinated, there’s a 90 percent chance you’re going to get measles.”
Unvaccinated young children are at highest risk of measles and its complications, including death. The elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, especially pulmonary disease, also are at risk of getting the measles, Dr. Rowlett says – unless they’ve been vaccinated.
The measles vaccine was introduced in the mid-1960s. Before the introduction of the measles vaccine and widespread vaccination, major epidemics occurred approximately every two to three years and caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year. The number of cases and deaths dramatically decreased in the years following vaccination. An initiative to get everyone vaccinated for measles by the World Health Organization starting in 2000 has prevented an estimated 21.1 million deaths.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the supply of vaccines across the board is the safest in history.
“It’s almost unheard of for someone who’s had both sets of measles immunizations to get measles,” Dr. Rowlett says. “It’s a 99 percent preventable disease.”
The measles vaccine is often referred to as the MMRV vaccine, which is combination of vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and varicella (chickenpox). The first MMRV vaccine is typically given at 12 months with the second round at four to six years old, Dr. Rowlett says. It is extremely safe and effective, he adds.
“Vaccinations are the key to all this. All we have to do is look at the number of cases before the vaccine, and now with the vaccine, we only have a handful of cases each year,” Dr. Rowlett says.
If you have questions about the MMRV vaccine, talk to your pediatrician or primary care physician.