Recently one of my patients who frequently travels to Western Kansas was concerned about an outbreak of measles in Finney County (Garden City area). According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, as of Jan. 25, there have been a total of six cases reported. The first two cases were from members of a family who had just returned from international travel. The other four cases were people who had been exposed here in Kansas but had not left the country.
Most people consider measles a disease that is no longer a problem in the United States. But that is no longer the case. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more then 26,000 cases of measles in Europe in the first half of 2011. Africa had more than 123,500 cases in the first 11 months of 2011. More than 90 percent of the 200+ outbreaks in the United States in 2011 were associated with international travel. They were either infected outside of the country and returned with the infection, or they were exposed to these travelers and later became ill. Most of those infected were never vaccinated against the measles.
So what is measles?
The symptoms commonly include a rash covering the body that lasts more then 3 days, high fevers over 101, runny nose, cough and redness of the eyes. Unfortunately infected people are highly contagious for up to four days before they become sick for a total of about eight days. It can take up to 10-14 days before symptoms appear after exposure. Most people recover without needing to be treated. Some people can develop complications such as pneumonia, hearing loss, and encephalitis (infection around the brain). In rare cases people can die. In 2008, about 165,000 did die worldwide, but it is rare for that to happen in the U.S. Pregnant women need to be especially careful as measles can cause miscarriage and other problems for the unborn baby.
So how do I catch the measles?
The virus is spread either through the air or on surfaces that the infected person either coughs on or touches. This virus is considered highly contagious and if you aren’t vaccinated you will have a near 100 perchant chance of catching the measles.
So how worried should I be?
First, if you were born before 1957, you are probably immune as most people had the disease during their childhood. If you were not born before 1957 then make sure that you have been vaccinated. The current childhood schedule recommends having two MMR vaccines at 1 year and 4 years of age. Most people who have had two of these vaccines are not capable of contracting measles. Of course good hand washing is always important. If you do get measles be kind to your community and stay home until your fever goes away and you are no longer contagious.
The other important point is if you are traveling overseas, check with your doctor that your vaccines are current. Certain countries require special vaccines that take time to become effective so check on this at least one to two months before you travel.