What you need to know about the U.S. measles outbreak

February 10, 2015 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn
Measles outbreak

You’ve heard about the ongoing measles outbreak in the U.S. that has now spread to 14 states, but what you may not know is that more than 62 percent of the cases that have been confirmed in California, where the outbreak started, have been adults. How do you know if you’re protected against this highly contagious disease?

Measles cases on the upswing

The current outbreak is not unique in the recent past. Last year, there were 644 confirmed cases of measles in 27 states. That’s the largest number of cases in this country since measles was documented as eliminated in the U.S. in 2000.

Measles is a significant health concern because the disease is highly contagious—90 percent of people exposed to the virus will contract the disease if they have not been vaccinated or had the measles previously. In addition, it can cause serious, potentially life-threatening complications, including encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, and pneumonia. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), out of every 1,000 people infected, one to two people will die of complications related to measles.

The disease is spread through exposure to the mucus expelled when an infected person coughs or sneezes. An infected person can spread measles from four days before the measles rash appears, so you may be exposed and not know it. The virus can live for about two hours on surfaces or in the air. That means if you are not immune to measles and you touch a contaminated surface, then touch your eyes, mouth or nose, or if you breathe in contaminated air, you’re at risk for catching the disease.

How do you know if you’re immune?

The 2015 outbreak is primarily due to a lack of vaccination. According to the CDC, adults born before 1957, or who are known to have had measles as a child, are considered immune and protected. If you received the inactivated measles vaccine between 1963 and 1967, you may not be immune to measles. Even if you received the recommended two doses of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine when you were younger, there is a possibility that your immunity has waned over time.

If you’re unsure whether you were vaccinated as a child, don’t know if you received the inactivated vaccine, or live in an area where there is measles activity and you’re concerned, see your primary care physician. You can talk with your physician about getting a blood test called a titer, which measures how many protective antibodies to measles you currently have. If the test shows that your level of antibodies is too low to protect you, discuss getting revaccinated with your doctor. One dose of measles vaccine is 95 percent protective and two are 99 percent protective.

Getting vaccinated against measles and other contagious, preventable diseases will not only protect your health, it also helps protect other people you may come into contact with who haven’t been vaccinated yet, for example children under 12 months old, and people with weakened immune systems, like those undergoing chemotherapy.



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