By: Robyn Correll Carlyle, MPH, Public Health Consultant Measles appears to be making something of a comeback. There have been at least eight cases of the virus so far this year in Texas — nearly matching the nine cases total confirmed in all of last year, and a far cry from the one reported case in 2017. And Texas isn’t alone. Measles outbreaks have cropped up in at least three states in 2019, for a total of 127 cases as of February 14, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With more cases potentially in store, it’s a good opportunity to talk about measles and why it’s so important to get vaccinated against it. Is Measles That Big of a Deal? Your grandparents had measles, and they were fine. Could it really be that bad? Yes, unfortunately. It absolutely can. Here’s why:
It’s deadly. The virus kills over 100,000 people a year, mostly young children. About 1-2 out of every 1,000 people with measles will die from it.
It’s debilitating. Those who survive measles can experience serious complications like brain swelling, which can leave people deaf or with intellectual disabilities.
It’s highly contagious. There’s a reason almost everyone born prior to the measles vaccine caught it: It can spread like wildfire. In an unvaccinated community, you could expect each person with measles to infect 13-15 others. In comparison, a person with influenza A(H1N1) would likely only infect 1-1.5 others.
Is Vaccination Our Best Defense Against Measles? There’s no cure for measles. The best way to protect against the potentially serious consequences of the virus is to prevent it completely through vaccination. The MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, and rubella) is recommended for everyone born after 1957 with very few exceptions — such as those with weakened immune systems like cancer patients receiving chemotherapy treatments. Kids typically receive the vaccine at 12-15 months and then again at 4-6 years. But adults who haven’t been vaccinated with two doses and who were born in or after 1957 can still get the MMR, so long as their doctor gives them the go-ahead. The vaccine is highly effective, but it’s not perfect. There will be some people who get the vaccine and still get measles. But because their immune systems have a head start in fighting the virus, those individuals likely won’t get nearly as sick as those who were never vaccinated in the first place. Is the MMR Safe? The MMR vaccine is very safe. But no medical intervention (not even multivitamins) are 100 percent risk-free. Thankfully, the risks for the MMR are almost always mild, and serious effects are extremely rare. The most common side effects are a short-lived fever, soreness, and a rash. In about 1 out of every 1 million doses, a person might have a serious allergic reaction to the vaccine within a few hours of receiving it. To put that one-in-a-million chance into perspective, your odds of dying from a lightning strike are roughly 1 in 218,000, and your chances of fatally choking on your food are about 1 in 2,700. Researchers have studied the vaccine for decades and haven’t found any evidence at all that the vaccine is linked to serious, life-long consequences like autism or auto-immune issues. Social media posts or websites claiming otherwise are not backed up by science. Because the vaccine is the only effective way to prevent measles, not getting vaccinated means you’re rolling the dice on getting the virus — and all that comes with it. Why Are We Getting These Measles Outbreaks When There’s a Vaccine? Most families vaccinate their kids against measles. Around 97 percent of Texas children were up-to-date on their MMR vaccination by the time they entered kindergarten in the 2017-2018 school year. That’s great, but it’s actually less than in 2016-2017. And even less than the year before that. The MMR vaccination rate among kindergartners has actually been falling a little bit nearly every year since 2009. The lower it falls, the more vulnerable our state is to outbreaks. Data source: Texas Department of State Health Services, Annual Report of Immunization Status Likewise, while Texas’ MMR vaccination rates are high overall (at least for now), rates in some individual communities are significantly lower than the state average. For example, only about 85 percent of kindergartners at High Point Academy and just 65 percent at Covenant Classical School — both in Fort Worth — had two doses of the MMR vaccine on file. They aren’t outliers; 28 of the 83 independent school districts in Tarrant County (or 1 in 3) have vaccination rates below 95 percent, the threshold scientists say is necessary to prevent outbreaks. Many of these lower rates appear to be driven by parents actively opting out of the vaccine for their kids. Often, the hesitation stems from a misunderstanding of the true risks of measles or the benefits of the vaccine. If you’re looking for more information about the MMR vaccine (or any vaccine), ask your doctor. They can help you better understand how vaccination might help (or in rare cases harm) your child specifically. And if you’re still left with questions, check out a science-based resource like these:
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