The advent of safe, effective vaccines makes it easy to forget that measles were a childhood rite of passage through most of human history, one that all too often ended with grieving parents and a trip to the cemetery.
But the chilling number of 2014 measles cases just reported by federal health officials makes it clear that this highly contagious disease is far from vanquished. Vigilance is still needed to protect yourselves and your loved ones from measles. That not only means ensuring that kids are fully vaccinated, but that adults’ immunizations comply with current recommendations.
For many, particularly for international travelers or those without strong documentation of childhood shots, that could involve revaccination. The outbreaks reported late last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ought to put a spotlight on this under-the-radar public health concern and, at the very least, prompt questions about vaccination at an upcoming doctor’s visit.
The newly reported measles statistics merited the alarming national headlines they garnered. So far, 288 cases have been confirmed this year in 18 states and New York City. That’s the highest number of cases reported at this point in the year since 1994, when more than 700 cases occurred during a similar time frame. Two of the 2014 cases were in Minnesota.
People who have become ill in the nationwide outbreaks range in age from 2 weeks to 65 years. No deaths have been reported, but 43 required hospitalization. Complications can include encephalitis and pneumonia; in pregnant women, measles can cause miscarriages or premature birth. The annual worldwide death toll is 164,000 people, according to the CDC.
Critics of celebrity Jenny McCarthy and other anti-vaccine crusaders took to social media last week to sarcastically “thank” these fearmongerers for their role in the alarming measles numbers. The ire was justified.
Most of the 288 cases occurred in people who had foregone the shot or didn’t know their vaccination status. Eighty-five percent of those who contracted measles and were unvaccinated had deliberately chosen not to be immunized. It’s not a far leap to conclude that reckless misinformation spread about vaccine safety had a role in this poor decisionmaking.
But a closer look at the numbers suggests that the CDC report should spur more than finger pointing. More than half of the reported measles cases occurred in adults age 20 and up. Even more strikingly, almost all of them — 97 percent — “were associated with importations from 18 countries,’’ according to the CDC report. In other words, people traveling abroad contracted the disease, returned home and spread it in their communities, mostly to people who weren’t protected by the vaccine.
There are several important conclusions to be drawn from this. One is that in this age of frequent air travel, living in the United States — where the measles still remains relatively rare — is no guarantee against exposure, a key reason why adults need to protect themselves and their kids.
The second is that international travelers need to be more vigilant in ensuring that their immunizations are up to date. That’s true no matter the destination. Many people get checkups when traveling to exotic or Third World locales. But even those headed to more routine destinations should ensure that their vaccinations are current, Minnesota state health officials said. Countries associated with imported measles surprisingly include Germany, England, France, the Netherlands, Canada and Belgium.
“Millions of cases of measles occur every year globally,’’ said Kris Ehresmann of the Minnesota Department of Health. “We’ve basically been very fortunate here to have strong infrastructure and a strong immunization program. But with measles occurring around the world, it’s important to take advantage of the tools we have.’’