At one time, it was thought that measles – a highly contagious, potentially deadly viral infection of the respiratory system – was eradicated. But over the years, the numbers have been on an increase. In 2011, we saw 222 cases, the biggest outbreak in about 15 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this year is expected to surpass that.
From January 1st of this year to August 24th, a total of 159 cases have been reported in the United States. And if this trend continues, it would be the biggest outbreak since 1996, when some 500 cases were reported.
While the numbers for this year may not seem all that startling, the fact that they are continuing to increase is disturbing. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent explained why to CNN.
“Initially, that doesn’t sound like a lot,” Dr. Gupta said. “Back in 2000, we thought we had measles essentially licked, eradicated, that there wouldn’t be a problem with this anymore. So any number is kind of concerning. There’s been about 50 to 60 cases a year, roughly, since 2000, and now you point out, 159 cases by August. If that trend continues, this will be the worst measles numbers in about two decades. So that’s quite concerning.”
While part of the increase is due to the fact that the U.S. has had some visitors from countries where measles are common, the CDC says the biggest contributing factor is the pockets of people refusing to vaccinate their children for religious or philosophical reasons. And those pockets are putting the rest of the population at risk.
“We know the consequences of measles. We know that more people are not getting their kids vaccinated than ever before…That’s at the heart of this issue, so numbers high this year could be even higher in years to come,” Gupta said. “You have pockets of people who object to vaccinations aren’t getting them, and we see the consequences of that very quickly when it comes to measles. So the not getting vaccinated, not only for the children, but people in the surrounding community are more at risk as well – extended family, people who live in that particular community, health care workers – so all of that’s of concern.”
What’s more, Dr. Buddy Creech, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University says that, since there have only been pockets of measles since 2000, younger physicians may not recognize it quickly enough to treat it with the speed necessary.
Measles generally start with a fever, which can become very high. A cough, runny nose and red eyes follow, and soon a rash of tiny, red spots start at the head and spread throughout the rest of the body. The rash can last a week and coughing can last up to 10 days. What’s more, complications like encephalitis and pneumonia can ensue. In fact, about 40% of all children under the age of 5 who come down with the measles have had to be treated in the hospital. And, according to the CDC, about one to three in every 1,000 children in the U.S. will die from the disease, despite the best of treatment.
“This is very bad. This is horrible,” Dr. Buddy Creech, a pediatric infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University said during a telephone briefing with the CDC on Thursday morning. “The complications of measles are not to be toyed with, and they’re not altogether rare.”
At this time, it does not appear that the condition is spreading, except in communities in which vaccinations are not given. In fact, about 92% of all those stricken with the measles this year were either not vaccinated or had an unknown vaccination status.
“We don’t see it spreading into the general population yet, but that’s the concern,” Gupta said. “Right now it’s clustered to pockets, but all of a sudden if you introduce someone who’s susceptible for whatever reason, they could become a carrier, and all of a sudden you could see a wider spreading of this.”
But as Dr. Gupta mentioned, the outbreaks may not stay within the unvaccinated communities. Because babies cannot be vaccinated until their first birthday, Creech says that those who refuse to vaccinate are putting the entire country at risk, particularly those that are most vulnerable.
“I hope that those who are vaccine hesitant or vaccine avoidant realize there are consequences to their actions,” Creech said. “None of us lives in isolation.”
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