New measles outbreaks are putting kids at risk in many states. Here’s how to protect your children.
The state of New York is currently experiencing a crisis.
Since September 2018, 170 cases of the measles have been reported — making this the largest measles outbreak in decades.
But New York isn’t the only place experiencing a resurgence of the disease that had been previously kept at bay by vaccines. In the last year alone, there have been 17 outbreaks in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson Dr. Andrew Bernstein, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told Healthline there is no doubt about the cause behind these recent outbreaks.
“There’s only one reason for the resurgence of measles, and that’s people not getting their immunizations,” he said.
Dr. Sara Bhargava Vora, assistant professor in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Seattle Children’s Hospital agrees.
“The majority of people who get measles in these outbreaks are unvaccinated,” she told Healthline. “Although overall vaccination rates remain high in the U.S., unfortunately there are pockets of unvaccinated or under-vaccinated children due to vaccine hesitant parents and exemptions for various reasons.”
In New York, where the most recent outbreak is occurring, some private school systems report vaccination rates as low as 50 percent — a reality that has made the area especially susceptible to the spread of this disease.
“That’s why we have to try to get as many people immunized as we can,” Bernstein said.
New York is currently taking that plan of action very seriously, recommending an accelerated vaccination schedule where infants get their first measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine at 6 months (instead of one year), and their second within a few months of that (instead of waiting until age 4, as the standard schedule recommends).
It’s all part of their attempt to get as many children protected in the face of this outbreak as possible.
Some parents may be concerned about this accelerated schedule, but Vora says they have nothing to fear.
“There are no risks to vaccinating for measles as early as 6 months of age. We also know it is safe to give a second dose as early as 1 month after the first,” she said.
According to the CDC, common side effects of the MMR vaccine are relatively mild, ranging from a sore arm after the shot to a fever or temporary pain and rash. But the risks of getting measles can be much more severe.
“The biggest risk of measles is that you can get encephalitis, a brain infection, and you can die,” Bernstein explained. “The death rate is a small number. But if you’re the 1 in 1,000 whose kid dies, that’s intolerable.”
Vora elaborated, listing the symptoms of measles as:
- high fever
- runny nose and conjunctivitis (red eyes)
- full body rash
- ear infections, which can result in permanent hearing loss
- pneumonia, a lung infection that is the most common cause of death from measles in children
- encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), which can lead to seizures and long term cognitive problems.
“One to two in every 1,000 people who get measles will die.” Vora explained. “Long-term complications are rare but may include a fatal degenerative brain condition called SSPE and sterility in males.”
When asked about the risk of the vaccine, Bernstein said, “There really are no proven side effects for the MMR vaccine, besides fever, rash, and some temporary pain. But even if there were some rare risk, the benefits of the vaccine by far outweigh that.”
He used numbers to highlight that point, saying, “If there is, in theory, 1 in 10 million people that don’t do well with the vaccine, well, that’s awful. It’s a terrible thing and we have to try to figure out what is causing that and prevent it. But if you’re talking a 1 in 10 million risk versus a 1 in 1,000 risk of dying if you get the disease, that’s not a good exchange.”
Nevertheless, larger numbers of parents seem to be opting out of vaccinations — and the result is increasing cases of disease.
“There’s a ton of misinformation on the internet, and echo chambers occur,” Bernstein pointed out. “People talk to others who already agree with them. I don’t think they’re bad people. They are trying to do what they think is best for their child. But they don’t have the scientific understanding or the medical background to understand what is going on.”
As his voice grew more impassioned, he continued, “I have held the hand of a mom whose son was dying of chickenpox. People promoting chickenpox parties haven’t seen what I’ve seen; they haven’t done the research I’ve done.”
Immunizations are a subject he is so passionate about that he asks families who refuse to vaccinate to leave his practice.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics officially does not recommend pediatricians kick patients out of their practice who don’t vaccinate. They want physicians to keep talking to those families. That’s what I try to do with my media outreach. But… I can’t put my other patients at risk,” he explained.
For those confused about how patients who’ve been vaccinated can still be at risk, Bernstein explained that for about 5 to 7 percent of the population, vaccinations aren’t as effective.
He also pointed out that there are immune-compromised patients who can’t get the vaccines or infants who are too young.
“That’s why herd immunity is so important. Even if not everyone can be protected by the vaccine, if enough people are, the virus can’t get a foothold in that community,” he said.
The one message she wanted to communicate to Healthline readers was this, “Please fully vaccinate your children to prevent them from getting this serious infection. Vaccines are the single most important public health intervention in modern times. They are one of the main reasons for the increased life expectancies that we are lucky enough to have witnessed over the last few decades.”
If you have questions about whether or not your child is fully vaccinated, or concerns about the vaccine or recent outbreaks, get in touch with your child’s pediatrician. They can answer any questions you may have and help you to make informed decisions moving forward.