Late last month, health-care providers across the nation were notified about a significant national outbreak of measles.
This multi-state outbreak of the virus, also known as rubeola, is the most significant in the United States in years. As of this writing, the outbreak had contributed to a spike of more than 100 cases in 14 states, including Colorado. Most of these cases are linked to an infected person visiting the Disneyland theme park in California in December.
In most infected people, measles is characterized by fever, rash, runny nose, cough and red, watery eyes. The infection may be spread up to several days before the onset of the characteristic rash.
In 2000, the U.S. was declared free of measles by the World Health Organization, based on no routine spread from sources inside the country (known as endemic spread). There are typically some cases reported each year, most commonly involving infected travelers from endemic countries.
In the prevaccine era, typical infection rates were in the range of 3 million to 4 million cases per year. Measles is among the most highly infectious diseases, with easy spread known to occur not only through direct contact and close proximity to an infected person, but also through respiratory droplets that can remain suspended in the air for several hours. The infection can spread in any public place where an infected person is present.
It is estimated that up to 75 to 90 percent of susceptible people exposed to measles will develop the disease.
Measles exists only in humans and can survive only in places where it can infect nonimmune people. In countries where vaccination rates are low and the number of susceptible people is high, measles continues to thrive. It remains the fifth leading cause of death in children worldwide.
About 1 in 5 infected people will develop a complication of measles. The most severe consequences are pneumonia, encephalitis and death. It is estimated that 1 to 3 in every 1,000 infected people will die from the disease.
Measles is preventable. This cannot be emphasized enough.
For decades, a proven safe and effective vaccine has been available and is routinely recommended for children at age 12 to 15 months with a booster dose at 4 to 5 years. This vaccine series confers effective and prolonged immunity.
Moreover, universal vaccination eliminates spread of the disease, thus protecting susceptible infants who are too young to develop an immune response to the vaccine.
Think about it: Universal vaccination with a safe and effective vaccine prevents risk of disease and complications in the vaccinated people, eliminates spread of the disease and protects the most vulnerable members of our community.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.