A series of diseases that have been declining for years, and in some cases are considered eradicated in the U.S., are showing up again. Measles and tuberculosis have made headlines in recent weeks after being detected in the States, and reports of polio surfaced just two years ago.
Measles has gotten the most attention after emerging on both coasts in a matter of weeks. Nine people in the Philadelphia area tested positive for measles after an outbreak started at a day care in late December. Days later, public health officials in Virginia warned about possible measles exposure after a person with the disease traveled through Dulles International Airport on Jan. 3, and Ronald Reagan National Airport on Jan. 4. On Jan. 10, health officials in Washington state urged health care providers to be on the lookout for measles symptoms after six people contracted the illness at a family gathering.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also issued a warning to health care providers about measles after there were 23 confirmed cases of the disease between Dec. 1 and Jan. 23.
Meanwhile, cases of tuberculosis have shown up in schools in Pennsylvania and Las Vegas over the last week. Polio, a virus that can cause paralysis in its most severe form and was once one of the most feared diseases in the country, was even detected in New York's Rockland County in 2022.
So what's behind this resurgence? Infectious disease experts explain.
What's going on here?
Not surprisingly, a lot of it has to do with not getting vaccinated, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "There are some parents who have withheld their children from vaccination," he says. "It's vaccines that have eliminated these diseases. If you withhold children from vaccination, you will create pockets of susceptibility." (Worth noting: The U.S. does not currently vaccinate against tuberculosis, given the low risk of exposure.)
"As a whole, vaccination rates in this country have drifted downward," Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and expert in infectious diseases at the University of Buffalo in N.Y., tells Yahoo Life. "In part, it's due to the anti-vaccination movement, but some people missed doses during the pandemic."
People are also traveling again post-pandemic, including to areas of the world where measles and other diseases are more common than they are in the U.S., bringing them back when they return, Russo says.
Many have forgotten what these diseases are like and don't feel a sense of urgency in protecting themselves or their families against them, Schaffner points out. "When these diseases are reintroduced to our population, there is always a great surprise at how readily they spread and how ill they can make people," he says. "This historical information hasn't been passed down because we haven't had these diseases in years."
How dangerous are these outbreaks?
Dr. William A. Petri, an infectious disease expert at UVA Health, tells Yahoo Life that cases of these diseases still remain low in the U.S. "Measles remains unusual in the U.S. — less than 100 cases per year on an average year," he says. Petri also points out that there was a "modest" increase in tuberculosis cases in the U.S. in 2022.
But people who get these diseases can get really sick. "Current parents of young children don't have a clear understanding of how serious these diseases are and they trivialize them," Schaffner says.
Measles is considered one of the most contagious diseases, Russo notes, making it easy to spread quickly among unvaccinated people. "Some of these diseases are potentially lethal," he says. "Polio is much less common than measles, but it can have significant consequences, such as paralysis." Tuberculosis can cause a cough that lasts longer than three weeks, coughing up blood and fever, and can be fatal if it's not treated properly, according to the CDC.
"These are childhood diseases we kept at bay, and they're now making a comeback," Russo says.
When to get vaccinated
Tuberculosis vaccines are only recommended under select circumstances in the U.S. But vaccines against polio and measles are part of routine childhood vaccinations, Petri says.
If you're an adult who hasn't been vaccinated against these diseases, doctors recommend changing that. "Your primary care physician or health department can give you these vaccines," Petri says. Your doctor may not keep the MMR vaccine (which targets measles, mumps and rubella) or inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) in stock, so it's worth calling in advance to see if they can be ordered for you.
"It's not too late to get these vaccines as adults," Schaffner says. Russo agrees, adding: "The consequences of these diseases can be even more severe in adults than in children."