For years, high vaccination rates kept measles firmly in check in the United States. But the highly infectious disease is making inroads in many states, including Texas. As of June, 1,095 cases of sometimes deadly measles have been confirmed in 28 states this year. That’s the greatest number of US cases reported since 1992, and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In the United States, measles has not been widespread for more than a decade because of high vaccination rates. Many of the people who got measles this year weren’t vaccinated. And travelers who have the disease continue to bring it into the United States. Measles is still a common disease in many regions of the world, including Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the Americas,
and Africa, according to the CDC.
Measles often spreads when it reaches a community were there are unvaccinated people. That makes Travis County, where no cases have been reported as of June, a concern for health officials. Travis County has an international airport that brings thousands of travelers into the community. It also has some schools with high rates of people who are not vaccinated against the disease because they received exemptions for various reasons. Because measles is highly contagious, health officials look for a 95% vaccination rate in schools to ensure an infection won’t spread rapidly, also known as herd immunity, says Dr. Keith Lamy, at Austin family practice medicine clinic. None of the Austin ISD schools fall below the 95% rate, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. But as many as 16 individual Austin schools do drop below the threshold, including several with more than 20% refusal rates in the 2017-2018 academic year. The highest was 49% at the Austin Waldorf School.
Some parents refuse vaccination for religious or philosophical reasons. Some also believe there is a connection between the measles vaccination and autism. Although no link has been found, the belief continues to spread through social networks. These anti-vaccination pockets mean there is a very high risk of measles in Austin, according to
Sahotra Sarkar, a philosophy and integrative biology professor at UT Austin. Sarkar was the lead author of a study by researchers at UT and Johns Hopkins University that identified 25 US counties, including Travis, to be most at risk for a measles outbreak because of low vaccination rates and many international travelers.
Measles has been reported in several other counties in Texas, and the state has confirmed 15 cases as of mid-June, according to state health officials. The measles infection is caused by a virus. It can be serious and even fatal for children. As many as 90% of people who are not vaccinated and exposed to the virus can catch it. And it’s easy to catch the virus from an infected person who sneezes or coughs because the virus is sprayed into the air and lives on surfaces or in the air for several hours. You may get the virus just by breathing or by putting your fingers to your mouth, nose, or eyes after touching an infected surface.
You can also catch it from someone with measles who has not yet broken out with a rash. Symptoms usually appear after 10 to 14 days. You may have a fever, runny nose, sore throat, inflamed eyes, or dry cough. A skin rash made up of small red spots appears on the face. As the rash spreads to other parts of the body, the fever may spike to a much higher temperature. There is no treatment for measles, and most people weather the disease with rest. But complications sometimes occur, especially in young children and adults. Ear infections, bronchitis, and diarrhea are possible, as well as pneumonia, which is the most common cause of death.
Encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, can lead to seizures, brain damage, or death. In some cases, the infection can also cause pregnancy problems. But the disease can almost always be prevented with a vaccine, which has helped reduce global death rates. The vaccine is considered safe and effective, with most side effects mild. Health officials usually give the vaccine as part of the MMR vaccine that protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. One dose is about 93% effective, while two doses are 97% effective at preventing measles, according to the CDC.
You should contact your doctor if you think you or your child may have been exposed to measles. Health officials advise against going to the hospital because the virus is so contagious and can imperil patients, especially those with compromised immune systems. If you have any concerns about the disease, you can schedule a visit with Dr. Lamy. He can review your family’s vaccination records, especially if you are planning international travel, or before your children start elementary school.