Get back on track with measles vaccination

Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.

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A still dangerous virus is off to an alarmingly fast start this year with measles cases already eclipsing the total number reported for all of 2023.

As of March 28, there have been 97 reported cases of this viral infection nationwide, compared to 58 for all of 2023, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Minnesota unfortunately is one of 17 states where people have become ill. Three cases have been reported here this year, with the state outbreak linked to international travel.

The troubling trend is a reminder that the measles virus hasn't been vanquished. Vigilance and timely vaccinations are still necessary. Of those who've contracted measles this year, the majority were unvaccinated or their vaccination status was unknown, the CDC reports.

Parents in particular should take note of several alarming data points from the 2024 outbreaks:

• 56% of cases have led to hospitalization.

• Children under 5 represented 50 of the 97 cases, with 34 of them (68%) needing a hospital stay.

Fortunately, the measles vaccine is safe and widely available, with two doses typically recommended in childhood: the first at age 12-15 months and the second at 4-6 years. But the vaccine can't protect young children and others if it goes unused.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, rates for routine childhood immunizations declined. These shots include measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, diphtheria, polio and other once common but serious childhood diseases.

While a catch-up appears to be underway, "Childhood series immunization rates by 24 months continue to remain lower than pre-pandemic levels," the Minnesota Department of Health reports.

The Minnesota Medical Association (MMA) — the state's medical society representing over 10,000 doctors — is also sounding the alarm.

"Keep in mind that the percentage of 2-year-olds in Minnesota receiving at least one dose of MMR vaccine by 24 months has declined from 83.8% in 2019 (pre-pandemic) to 78.7% in 2023," the MMA said in a recent statement.

The three cases reported in Minnesota so far may not sound like a lot. But it shouldn't lull anyone into complacency. A key reason: Measles is extremely infectious. In fact, it's one of the world's most contagious diseases.

State officials noted that people with measles are infectious for four days before a rash starts, and they might go about their regular activities not knowing they are spreading the virus. They pointed out that measles can linger in the air for two hours after an infected person has left a classroom or workspace.

State health officials also had this reassuring message for parents and caregivers: It's never too late to get a child vaccinated.

If a child is behind on the measles vaccination or other shots, a medical provider can help families get caught up. There's also flexibility if families are traveling abroad, where low vaccination rates at the destination can be a concern. Children traveling internationally can receive their first dose of MMR as early as 6 months old, and a preschool-aged child can get a second dose prior to age 4.

Adults may also be wondering if they need a measles vaccine update. The good news is that most don't. Adults born in 1957 or after should have at least one documented dose of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, officials said. If they were born before 1957, they are considered to be immune to measles.

Officials added that it's particularly important for adults who are pregnant or immunocompromised to consult with their health care provider about protection from measles.

Measles once was a common childhood disease, leading too many to casually dismiss its risks. Complications can be serious and include pneumonia, encephalitis (which can cause hearing loss or an intellectual disability) or, rarely, death. Children under 5 more likely to develop complications, the CDC states.

There's never a bad time for kids who've missed immunizations to get back on track. But current measles outbreaks make it an especially good time to do so.