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Measles: A highly contagious, serious disease

By Cathy Thomas Brownfield

Health District publicist

Many people think measles is a harmless rash. If you grew up during the era when vaccine was in development, when everyone got measles, you may remember having to stay in your room, the windows darkened to protect your eyes. You and your siblings may have had the measles at the same time or one after the other. You may have annoyed your mom for the duration of your isolation. You may have been fortunate to avoid any complications.

Vaccinating children has been a bone of contention for a while now. A disease that was eliminated in the United States nearly 20 years ago is now a public health concern because it is so highly contagious. What may be a harmless rash for one person may result in deadly complications for someone else.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that between Jan. 1 and June 6 of this year, 1,022 individual cases were confirmed over 28 states, the highest number of cases reported in the United States since 1992 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000. At this time there are no reported cases in Ohio.

Outbreaks of measles within U.S. borders are attributed to travelers who have brought measles back from other countries that see large outbreaks of the disease, places like Israel, Ukraine, and the Philippines. Those who contract measles are mostly those who have never been vaccinated.

In 1912, measles was required to be reported. There were 6,000 measles deaths, the CDC says. Between 1953 and 1963 nearly every child got measles by the time they were 15 years old. Three to four million people were infected each year, with 400 to 500 deaths and 48,000 hospitalizations. Approximately 1,000 suffered encephalitis from measles. (Encephalitis is swelling of the brain.)

In 1954, the measles virus was isolated and researchers began to develop the vaccine that finally came available in 1963. In 1968 improvements were made, advises the CDC, and the same vaccine is being used today. The CDC set a goal of eradicating measles by 1982. With a measles outbreak in 1989, a second dose of the vaccine was recommended. The measles vaccine is given in combination with the vaccines for mumps and rubella (MMR).

Symptoms don’t appear right away. You can be infected for seven to 14 days before they appear, meaning you can infect others before you know you are sick. The symptoms include a cough, high fever (above 104 degrees F), runny nose and red, watery eyes. Just a couple of days after symptoms start, there may be tiny white spots inside the person’s mouth. The rash appears three to five days after the symptoms begin. A person can die from complications of measles.

Complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis, are more common in children under the age of 5, adults older than 20, pregnant women (who cannot be immunized during pregnancy), and people with compromised immune systems, such as those with leukemia or HIV infection. High risk adults include students at post-high school educational institutions, healthcare personnel, international travelers to any country outside the United States, and airport workers.

The virus can live on surfaces for two hours. The Columbiana County Health Department recommends washing your hands often, being aware of your surroundings, and if you have symptoms, go to the doctor. More doctors are testing for measles because it’s out there, said the county health department’s epidemiologist, Jamie Elenz.

Measles is still common in many parts of the world, so if you are planning to travel outside the country, have your immunizations brought up to date. The vaccine for children under age 18 is available at the Columbiana County Health Department. The MMR vaccine is typically given at age 1 and a second dose between 4 and 6 years old. Babies who are breastfed are protected for their first 12 months by their mothers’ antibodies. Elenz said there is no thimerosal, which is a mercury-based preservative, in most vaccines. There is no thimerosal in children’s vaccines. The preservative was used before single use dosing, when syringes were filled from a multi-dose vial, Elenz explained.

The Columbiana County Health Department is located at 7360 state Route 45, Lisbon. Office hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday. The phone number is 330-424-0272. Contact the agency for more information about immunizations.

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