Health officials are concerned about unusually large outbreaks of measles in the U.S. this year.
From January to August 2013, there have been 159 reported cases of measles in 16 states, according to a report published Sept. 13 in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). In a typical year, about 60 people contract measles in the U.S.
Health officials say the outbreaks have grown so large because they are spreading easily among unvaccinated populations.
About 80 percent of the current measles cases were in people who were unvaccinated, and 9 percent had an unknown vaccination status, according to the MMWR report.
“Only a few outbreaks have occurred this year, but they are large in number because they’ve involved unvaccinated populations, specifically people who have personal beliefs against vaccination,” said Jessica Tuttle, M.D., medical epidemiologist at the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). “In years past, we have had a number of outbreaks in the U.S., but they were smaller. Outbreak size directly relates to how many unvaccinated or susceptible people you have in a certain population.”
So far, Georgia has no reported cases of measles for 2013. Tuttle said the state has seen an average of one case per year for the past decade; in 2012, metro Atlanta had two cases.
But Tuttle said it’s still very possible that an outbreak could happen in the state. Measles is a highly contagious virus, and one that can survive suspended in the air for up to two hours.
“You don’t even have to be in the same room with the infected person at the same time to get infected,” Tuttle said.
Early symptoms of the disease – low-grade fever, fatigue, runny nose and conjunctivitis – are mundane enough that many people might dismiss them as a simple cold. But after four or five days, a red, raised rash will begin to spread from the hairline down the body.
The good news? Measles is very easy to prevent by staying up-to-date on vaccinations. In fact, the vaccine for measles, MMR, is one of the most effective vaccines available today.
“The bottom line is that it’s really important that people get vaccinated,” Tuttle said. “If you’ve had two MMR vaccines, your chances of getting measles are very low.”
Talk to your doctor about your vaccination history and testing your immunity, especially if you plan to travel overseas since vaccination rates in places like Europe, Asia and Africa are much lower than in the U.S. If you’re traveling with an infant, who wouldn't be protected against measles until age 1, you can also talk to a physician about getting a protective dose of the vaccine for a child at least 6 months old.