Officials in the state of Washington have declared a state of emergency after a recent outbreak of measles, where there have been 36 confirmed cases across two counties. And the potentially deadly disease is making a comeback mostly in unvaccinated children: Of the total reported cases, 32 were in unvaccinated people, 25 of whom were children under the age of 10. There have also been three reported cases in Atlanta.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s one of the most contagious viruses we’ve ever known,” says Alok Patel, MD, a pediatrician at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Symptoms can start like any other really bad cold: a cough, runny nose, not feeling very well, red eyes,” he says. “And a few days after that, you get that famous rash.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared measles “eliminated” from the United States in 2000, but adherents of an anti-vax movement, tied in part to concerns about links between vaccines and autism, has led many parents to skip the shot, opening the door to potential infection. “It is pretty black and white,” says Patel. “Vaccination is a fool-proof method to curb the spread of measles. … We’ve since looked at millions of kids completely debunking that there’s any link between autism and [the vaccine].”
If you suspect you have the measles or have been exposed to the virus, the CDC advises people to call their doctor immediately. You may be told to stay home until you’re no longer contagious. “The virus can actually live for about two hours on surfaces and in the air,” warns Patel. The best defense against infection is vaccination, which the CDC says is “about 97 percent effective.”
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