Measles outbreak highlights importance of vaccination

Recent cases of measles in Connecticut and the region are causing some concern about the highly contagious virus. Yale infectious diseases specialist Louise-Marie Dembry, M.D., said not to worry. “Measles is entirely preventable,” Dembry said. “The best way to protect yourself and your family is through vaccination.”

Connecticut's Department of Public Health reported two cases last week, following several in New York City, and 51 reported in the U.S. this year. Measles is spread through the air, and public health officials believe sporadic outbreaks usually start from people who do not receive the measles vaccine. The two cases in Connecticut involved an infant and an adult, neither of whom were vaccinated for the disease, according to the Connecticut Department of Health.

The infant was only seven months old, too young to be vaccinated. Children typically receive their first shot of the MMR vaccine, which includes protection against measles, mumps and rubella (German measles), around their first birthday, and a second inoculation before kindergarten.

While Connecticut requires immunization before a child can enroll in public school parents can opt out based on religious or philosophical objections, as can a child or adult with a medical condition that contraindicates the vaccination. Connecticut health department officials estimate that fewer than 2 percent of kindergartners claim exemptions.

This is risky, because while measles has been virtually eliminated in the United States since 2000, “it’s not gone from the rest of the world,” said Dembry. “Most of the reports involve unimmunized people coming from places where the disease remains common. If they’re already incubating measles, they can then easily spread it to other unprotected people here.”

Symptoms of measles include runny nose, fever, cough, and rash (usually starting at the hairline and moving down the body), and they typically resolve within a week. But some serious cases lead to ear infections and pneumonia, and in about 1 out of of every 1,000 cases, fatal encephalitis. People are infectious during the four days before and the four days after the rash starts. While there is no specific treatment for measles, the vaccination can be given anytime up to 72 hours of exposure. If you are exposed to measles, you should contact your doctor immediately.

But the vast majority of children and adults should have nothing to worry about, Dembry said.  “I’ve never seen a case of measles in my practice, and that’s because we’ve done such a good job in this country with vaccinations. This recent outbreak should serve as a reminder to make sure all of your shots are up to date, and if they’re not, get vaccinated.”

This article was submitted by Mark Santore on March 17, 2014.

Related People

Louise-Marie Dembry

Professor of Medicine (Infectious Diseases) and of Epidemiology (Microbial Diseases)