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Immunization Stressed as Measles Cases Rise

Last updated: April 3, 2024

Despite the existence of a highly effective vaccine, cases of measles are on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a health advisory in response to a rise in measles cases in the United States. As of March 21, 2024, a total of 64 measles cases were reported in 17 states.

Measles is one of the most highly contagious airborne diseases. Due to the recent outbreak across the country, doctors are watching for the signs of measles in patients.

Dr. Sharon Rink, a Pediatrician with ThedaCare Physicians-Darboy, says she’s concerned about both the outbreak and declining measles immunization rates among children, which could allow the disease to spread.

Contagious and Serious

Measles is a highly contagious virus that lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person. It can spread to others through coughing and sneezing. The virus can live for up to two hours in the air. If others breathe in the contaminated air or touch the infected surface and then touch their mouths, eyes, or nose, they can become infected.

The CDC states that measles is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune can also become infected.

Some people think of measles as just a little rash and fever that clears up in a few days, but Dr. Rink says the disease can cause serious health complications, especially in children younger than 5 years old.

“There is no way to tell in advance the severity of the symptoms a child will experience,” Dr. Rink says. “Some children who get measles will be hospitalized; others could potentially develop brain swelling or brain damage. On average, one in five children who have measles will end up hospitalized. And in the most severe cases, measles could lead to death, even with the best care.”

Symptoms and Treatment

Symptoms usually begin seven to 14 days after a person has been infected. The most common symptoms include:

  • High fever (may spike to more than 104°)
  • Cough
  • Runny nose
  • Red, watery eyes
  • Tiny white spots inside the mouth two to three days after symptoms begin
  • Rash

A head-to-toe rash often breaks out three to five days after symptoms begin. It usually starts as flat red spots that appear on the face at the hairline and spread downward to the neck, trunk, arms, legs, and feet. Small raised bumps also may appear on top of the flat red spots. The spots may join together as they spread from the head to the rest of the body.

“Since measles is caused by a virus, there’s no specific medical treatment for it. The virus must run its course,” Dr. Rink says. “If a child develops measles, they should drink plenty of fluids, get lots of rest, and stay home from school and day care. They should also avoid community groups or gatherings to prevent spreading the infection.”

Immunization is Key

The best way to protect children and others is to make sure they’re immunized against measles.

For most children, measles protection is part of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) or measles-mumps-rubella-varicella vaccine (MMRV) given when they’re 12 to 15 months old and again when they’re 4 to 6 years old. The first vaccine can be given to babies as young as 6 months old if they will be traveling internationally.

“About 95% of people achieve immunity during their first vaccine, and the rest develop it the second time they’re vaccinated,” Dr. Rink says. “Immunity usually lasts a lifetime.”

Declining measles vaccination rates among children are allowing the disease a new foothold. The CDC targets a 95% MMR vaccination rate among kindergarten children, a threshold the nation reached during the 2019-2020 school year. The following year, the rate slipped to 94%. During the 2022-2023 school year, it was 93%. In some Wisconsin counties, the rates are even lower.

“Advancements in vaccine development have helped keep children from getting many serious illnesses,” Dr. Rink says. “Because of these improvements, generations can help avoid childhood diseases because they’re vaccinated. Increased vaccination rates can reduce the spread of vaccine-preventable illness. This can help protect those who aren’t vaccinated, either by choice or because it’s not safe for them to receive vaccines.”

The outbreak of measles cases serves as a reminder for parents and families to ensure children are up to date on recommended immunizations.

Families can verify immunization status by using one of two resources:

Children can receive vaccines through ThedaCare regardless of insurance status. If your child needs a vaccine, you can use MyThedaCare to make an appointment.

Learn more about scheduling needed vaccines.

Tags: Immunization Measles MMR MMRV pediatrics vaccines

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