A girl with measles looks out the window of her quarantined room in 1976. (Photo: Lester V. Bergman/Corbis)
If you’ve wondered why all the fuss over the Disney measles outbreak, you’re not alone. Since the CDC announced the disease was eradicated in the United States more than a decade ago, it’s no longer a virus the average American knows well.
“There’s this misconception that measles is just a little rash,” says Gail Shust, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Kravis Children’s Hospital at Mount Sinai. “That’s because it hasn’t been around in the U.S. in some time, and people haven’t seen the effects.”
With the virus slowly spreading outside Disney, it’s important to familiarize yourself with those effects, symptoms and other hallmarks of the disease. We’ve got them — along with a few reasons docs are so concerned about the sudden outbreak.
Measles is not just a rash; it can carry serious complications.
Shust says that, aside from the blotchy, red rash, people can get (and feel) really sick. “You can get pneumonia, croup and diarrhea,” she says. “The worst complication, which occurs in about one in 1,000 cases is encephalitis, which can lead to permanent brain damage or be fatal.”
While everyone does not need to be hospitalized for this condition, Shust says those with compromised immune systems, the elderly or children under five might be more prone to complications and “need more supportive care.”
The progression of symptoms usually begins with minor issues like cough, nasal congestion and conjunctivitis (or pink eye), followed by a high fever and rash that begins on the face and travels down the body. “It’s very uncomfortable, and lasts around least a week,” says Shust.
You can spread measles before you ever know you have it.
Even before you get the symptoms of the condition, though, you could be spreading measles — which is the disconcerting part. “It’s contagious both four days before the symptoms pop up, and four days after,” Shust says. “Once someone is exposed, it takes about a week to a week and a half to get symptoms.”
The bottom line is this: there’s a dark period where you could easily transmit the disease, simply because you have no idea that you have it.
Measles is one of the most infectious diseases on record.
The other issue? Measles is incredibly contagious among those who haven’t been vaccinated. “It is one of the most contagious infectious diseases we know of,” Shust says. “If you’re not immune, you have about a nine in 10 chance of getting it through close contact.” This might mean sneezing, coughing, or even from germs on a surface.
“The virus can linger on surfaces for up to two hours,” Shust says. “This is why it’s incredibly problematic that it happened at Disney. You can imagine all the surfaces the virus was living on.”
And because so many parents are now choosing not to vaccinate children, more people are at risk, and the outbreak potential is larger.
You can get measles even if you have been vaccinated.
The good news is that the vaccine against measles is incredibly effective. “If you’ve had your two doses, then it’s roughly 99 percent effective. If you’ve only had one dose, then it’s about 95 percent effective,” Shust says. With that in mind, if you have not gotten vaccinated, talk to your doc pronto.
However, sadly, just because you’ve been vaccinated does not mean you’re in the clear. There is that small group the vaccine will not prove effective in. “On top of that, some experts think that immunity to the virus can wane with time,” Shust says. “So, for instance, if you have the shot at age five and you’re an adult now, or you’re immune compromised already, you might have a higher risk of contracting measles.”
If you’ve had a known exposure, whether you’ve been vaccinated or not, see your doc. “Within 72 hours, you can get another dose of the vaccine if you’ve only had one,” says Shust. “You can also get immunoglobulin, which contains antibodies that can help fight off the virus.”
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