A young girl with measles

Dr. Jack W. Ross
Medical Director, Infection Control
Hartford HealthCare 

The United States is on pace to see its most measles cases since 2000 – the year the disease was  supposedly eradicated. Now the potentially deadly disease is back with a vengeance. On April 15, New York announced a public health emergency and mandatory vaccines after more than 250 people in a single Brooklyn neighborhood were infected.

Many of the nation’s outbreaks correlate with high numbers of vaccine exemptions granted to people due to religious, medical, personal or even philosophical reasons.

Here’s all you need to know: You won’t get measles if you receive the proper series of vaccine. (The rate of protection is nearly 100 percent.)

Measles typically begins with a fever, cough, runny nose and red, watery eyes. It progresses, three to five days later, to a rash that begins at the hairline on the face and spreads to much of the body. Those most likely to get measles are children under 5 and adults over 20. Pneumonia is a common complication and the most likely to cause death. (Children under 5 have the highest chance of death attributed to measles.)

Thankfully, Connecticut has a high vaccination rate – with only three confirmed cases this year. But even one is too many. And the risk of imported cases remains.

Some baby boomers will recall the days before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, when there were 4 million cases, 48,000 hospitalizations and 500 deaths nationally every year. By 2000, though, measles essentially vanished from the United States, wiped out by immunization.

Now it has returned — fueled by mistrust and misinformation.

The suspicion about the possible dangers of the measles vaccine is associated with a 1998 medical journal article that linked the vaccine to autism in children. The article was refuted and retracted when the it was revealed that the author fabricated data. Nonetheless, parents in several areas around the country, still clinging to the vaccine-autism myth, have not allowed their children to be vaccinated.

Unfortunately, the use of medical exemptions is fashionable in some social circles among misinformed parents. They are usually not based on valid reasons to exempt. The pressure on the medical provider to please the parent, and give the exemption, is immense at times.

These practices put all of us at risk and threaten the public health gains of the last 60 years. The bottom line is this: Vaccination prevents the tragedy and misery of preventable diseases such as polio, smallpox, measles and meningitis. Ask anyone who has experienced shingles — they would gladly, in retrospect, have taken the shingles vaccine.