If your child awakes with a fever, cough, runny nose and red, watery eyes, the symptoms usually call for a sick day or two. Parents and grandparents often monitor a child at home, as symptoms akin with a common cold disappear on their own after a couple of days.
But what if the symptoms persist or worsen? What if the child develops white spots inside his or her mouth? What if a rash breaks out three to five days after the onset of the illness? What if their fever spikes to 104 degrees or higher?
All of these signs point to measles and require immediate medical attention.
Less than two decades ago, measles was one less worry on many parents’ minds. In 2000, the United States declared measles eradicated because of an absence of continuous disease transmission for more than 12 months.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted a highly effective vaccination program as the reason for the decline.
But now there has been a surge nationally in measles cases amid growing debate about the vaccine that eradicated it. Some people withhold their from being vaccinated because of the debunked notion that the injection leads to autism.
Although deemed eradicated, that didn’t mean the infection caused by the rubeola virus went away completely. There were more than 100 cases reported in the United States in 2001 and more than 200 in 2011, according to data collected by the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
In 2014 those cases spiked drastically, with more than 600 cases reported, and this year alone, through May 10, the CDC had reported 839 individual cases of confirmed measles in the United States, an increase of 75 cases from the previous week.
With the infection confirmed in 23 states, this is the largest outbreak in 25 years.
There have been no reported cases in Virginia or the Carolinas, but bordering states including Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia all have at least one person with measles.
Stacey Humphreys, pediatric nurse practitioner at Sovah Pediatrics, said that the reason for measles outbreaks is twofold.
First, there’s that decrease in compliance with immunization schedules. Second, those traveling to and from countries where people haven’t been immunized against measles have an increased risk of getting the virus and spreading it to others.
“Measles can be deadly,” Humphreys said. “Too many people think of measles as a benign childhood illness, but it is not.”
According to the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics and vaccine safety experts, the MMR vaccine — which contains vaccinations against measles, mumps and rubella — is not responsible for increases in the number of children with autism.
Sovah Health Infection Preventionist Renee Osborne, RN, noted that the MMR vaccine is 93% effective upon a first dose and 97% effective upon a second dose. It is recommended that children ages 1 to 4 receive two doses of the MMR vaccine.
Students entering Henry County Public Schools are required to receive the MMR vaccine before attending classes. Students in Martinsville City Public Schools also must have the vaccine, except in the case of religious exemption. Neither school division has any active measles cases.
“Prior to the start of the vaccination program, 400 to 500 deaths from measles were reported each year to the CDC, and we do not know the number of unreported deaths,” Osborne said. “Measles can also lead to hospitalization, and there is a risk of encephalitis, [or] brain swelling. It is important to get the MMR not only to protect yourself, but to help protect those that cannot receive the vaccine.”
Osborne noted that children under 12 months should not receive the vaccine unless they are traveling internationally and that those with allergies to the vaccine or compromised immune systems, such as someone receiving chemotherapy, should not receive the vaccine. She urged close family members to get the vaccine in cases where other loved ones cannot.
The measles virus can live for up to 2 hours in an airspace where an infected person coughed or sneezed. If others breathe in the contaminated air or touch an infected surface and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth, they risk becoming infected. The CDC reports that if one person has measles, 90% of the people close to that person who are unvaccinated and not immune will also become infected.
Measles often is considered a childhood infection, but unvaccinated adults may also receive the MMR vaccine. The CDC suggests that adults receive two doses, the second about four weeks after the first.
Those seeking the vaccine may schedule an appointment with their primary care provider, be it a pediatrician or family medicine doctor.