The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that the number of U.S. measles cases in the first four months of 2014 is at an 20 year high.
According to Dr. Jeffrey S. Kahn, Director of Infectious Disease at Children’s Medical Center, the incidence of measles in North and South America is still low compared with the rest of the world, but the U.S. uptick is an early warning signal for local parents to check their children’s vaccination schedules and make sure they are current.
“Measles is one of the most easily transmitted diseases in the world, and even with relatively small numbers in the United States it’s a cause for concern, as measles can lead to serious complications, including pneumonia, bronchitis and encephalitis,” says Dr. Kahn.
What Is Measles?
Measles is a viral respiratory disease that mainly affects children but also strikes adults. Although it was officially declared eliminated in 2000 – meaning it no longer regularly passes through the U.S. population – in recent years it has re-emerged, including a measles outbreak last year in Tarrant and Denton counties.
“Even with heightened awareness in the medical community, measles can be difficult to track and diagnose as there is a long incubation period, and many physicians and nurses in the United States have never even seen a patient with measles,” says Dr. Kahn. “However, when we notice an uptick in cases, we have to be vigilant and fully prepared for the possibility that we will see measles in the emergency room.”
Who Is Most at Risk for Catching Measles?
|Did You Know?|
|Measles is so contagious that tiny virus particles can remain live and airborne in a room for up to two hours after a person with measles walks through it. A tight enclosure such as an airplane virtually ensures that every person will be exposed to the virus if one passenger is contagious – and possibly the next planeload of passengers, too.|
According to Dr. Kahn, babies less than a year old – prior to their first measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination – are particularly vulnerable for catching measles, along with unvaccinated children and adults, whether by choice or because they have an underlying condition such as immunodeficiency does not allow them to be vaccinated.
Young children who have not had a second inoculation also are more susceptible to the disease. Even fully vaccinated older children and adults may not be entirely protected if the potency of the original vaccine has worn off.
Measles also is dangerous for unvaccinated pregnant women due to high risks for spontaneous abortion, premature labor and low birth weight babies.
How Do You Treat Measles?
There is no specific medical treatment for measles other than supportive care at home, although many children who develop complications require hospitalization.
Children with symptoms, particularly if they have recently traveled internationally, should be evaluated for measles. Parents should contact their child’s primary care physician if they suspect measles.
Symptoms of measles:
- Runny nose
- Red rash, which usually appears four to five days after the fever begins
According to Dr. Kahn, if a child at Children’s is diagnosed with measles, the area must be evacuated, cleaned and quarantined for several hours.
He says measles can spread like wildfire in non-immunized populations and create a nightmare for public health officials who must track each sick person’s movements and alert those who may have been exposed.