School bus

Measles and back to school

As the school year begins, bringing people closer together, it is important to know how this highly contagious respiratory disease spreads and how it can be prevented
August 15, 2019

In the first seven months of 2019, 1,172 individual cases of measles have been confirmed in 30 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is the greatest number of cases reported in the United States since 1992—and certainly more since measles was declared eliminated in the country in 2000.

More than 75 percent of the cases this year have been linked to outbreaks in New York, and the majority of those cases are among people who were not vaccinated against measles.

Measles can be a serious infection, particularly for children under the age of 5, adults older than 20 years of age, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems, according to an infectious disease expert, Cristie Columbus, MD, associate dean for the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “Common complications are ear infections and diarrhea. Serious complications include pneumonia and encephalitis,” she said. “Pneumonia is the most common cause of death from measles in young children.”

Measles does not require close contact with an infected person for transmission. Like many airborne infectious diseases, measles is spread primarily through coughing and sneezing, but the pathogen can live on surfaces for up to two hours. Studies documented disease transmission in closed areas (such as physician exam rooms) for up to two hours after an infected individual has been present.

It is important to note that individuals are contagious up to four days before and up to four days after the rash appears. Unfortunately, that means it is possible to catch measles from someone before they have developed the characteristic rash.

Vaccination is the most effective method of preventing measles and its complications, Columbus said. Without immunity, you have approximately a 90 percent chance of catching measles if you are in the same areas as an infected individual. The CDC and the Advisory Council on Immunization Practices recommend children receive two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, the first at 12 to 15 months of age and the second at 4 to 6 years of age.

Because it is extraordinarily contagious, doctor’s offices and emergency rooms prefer that people who might have measles isolate themselves and call ahead before coming to the office. This will help prevent others from contracting the disease in a public venue. “You will be asked to place a mask over your nose and mouth once you arrive,” Columbus said.

Anyone who is not certain if they are immune from measles can get a blood test from a primary care provider. If the test indicates you’re not immune, you can get the MMR vaccine.

— Kelli Reynolds

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