Measles: What you should know

Wellness | February 15, 2019
Get the scoop on this highly contagious disease

As of last week (Feb. 8, 2019), the Washington Department of Health has confirmed 51 cases of measles and declared a public emergency. 50 of those are in Clark County and 1 case in King County. Of these confirmed cases, 43 were not immunized and 6 had an unverified immunization status. One of these cases had received one dose of the MMR vaccine. 35 of these 51 were under the age of 10.

So, what is measles and why is this outbreak so important?

Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by the rubeola virus.  It is so contagious that if one person has it, 9 out of 10 people will be infected if they are not protected.  It is an airborne disease that can spread easily through coughs, sneezing and saliva. Symptoms usually start 10 days after exposure and last 7-10 days. Initial symptoms typically include fever, runny nose and coughing. Around three days after the initial symptoms, a measles rash develops on the face and eventually spreads to the rest of the body. Complications from measles can range from diarrhea, ear infections and pneumonia to more life-threatening ones such as encephalitis, seizures, and blindness. There is no cure or treatment for measles.

The first cases of measles were diagnosed and reported in the United States in 1912. During this time, there were approximately 48,000 hospitalizations and 500 deaths from measles-related complications in the U.S. yearly. The measles vaccine, now known as MMR or MMRV (combined with mumps, rubella, and/or varicella), became available in 1963. By 1981, there was an 80% decrease in measles cases in the United States due to the advent of the MMR vaccine.  

Since a single dose did not fully eradicate the virus, a second dose of the MMR vaccine was recommended, resulting in an even greater decline in measles cases. By the year 2000, measles was declared eliminated from the United States. It is still very prevalent in developing areas of Africa and Asia.

However, in recent years, measles has been more prevalent, due to communities with higher rates of unvaccinated individuals and increased travel to countries where measles is widespread. According to the Washington Department of Health, nearly 25% of Clark County kindergartners are not fully vaccinated. The current outbreak was preventable, as a majority of the cases were confirmed to be unimmunized. According to the CDC, one dose of the measles vaccine is approximately 93% effective in preventing measles if exposed to the virus, and two doses is approximately 97% effective.

What should you do if you were exposed to measles or you think you have measles?

Call your doctor’s office immediately and let them know what you have been exposed to and what your current symptoms are. In order to manage this highly contagious disease, follow their instructions and do not visit your doctor’s office without calling first, as this puts other patients and office staff at an increased risk of exposure should you have measles. You should determine your immunization status by looking at your vaccination records. Special arrangements can then be made for you to be evaluated in a manner that does not put others at risk.

PeaceHealth wants to keep our communities well-informed about measles and offers this “Know Measles” resource webpage.

*This post was provided by Sneha Patel, DO. Dr. Patel is a provider at PeaceHealth Medical Group Family Medicine in Bellingham. She is passionate about educating her patients on healthy habits, including diet, exercise and mental well-being, in order to live their best lives.