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Parents are being urged to make sure their children are up-to-date on their measles vaccinations. urbazon/Getty Images
  • Measles is a highly contagious disease, especially among children.
  • As many as 4 million people in the United States used to contract measles every year until vaccinations virtually eliminated the illness.
  • Health officials are concerned measles could surge again due to a decline in childhood vaccinations during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
  • Pediatricians are now contacting families to urge them to catch up on their vaccinations.

Is there going to be a resurgence of measles in the United States?

If so, how concerned should we be about it?

Isn’t measles simply a typical childhood illness with a fever and rash?

Those may be a few questions parents have as some medical experts raise concern about an increase in the illness in the coming months.

Measles was a common childhood illness in the United States until 2000, when it was declared eliminated in the United States due to vaccinations.

Now, medical experts are worried it will make a comeback, causing unnecessary disease and death.

“We are all worried about the possibility of measles returning,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Healthline.

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease.

Symptoms include a cough, runny nose, red eyes, fever, and rash.

Before there was an available vaccine, between 3 and 4 million people in the United States contracted measles every year.

About 48,000 people in the United States were hospitalized due to measles each year, and as many as 500 people died every year.

It is endemic, which means it’s consistently present but is limited to a particular region or population.

A vaccine became available in 1963. Because of widespread immunization, measles cases have been drastically reduced.

One major concern medical experts have is the decrease in childhood immunizations during the past 2 years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because of COVID-19, children were withheld from routine medical care,” said Schaffner, “and unfortunately, you can’t provide an immunization over the phone or via a Zoom call.”

“A recent CDC study of 10 U.S. jurisdictions, including Louisiana, noted a significant decrease in childhood vaccination rates in 2020,” said Dr. Adaora Stefania Uzodi, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital in Baton Rouge.

“For the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, the decrease was up to 63 percent in certain areas. The implication of this decline is that many more children are susceptible to measles than previously,” she said.

“Measles is highly contagious. Ninety percent of exposed persons who are not vaccinated will get the infection,” Uzodi told Healthline. “It can cause severe disease and fatality. In 2019, there was an increase in the number of reported measles cases. Although we have not seen such an increase in 2020 and 2021, it is believed COVID lockdowns helped in that regard.”

“Now that stay-at-home mandates and other COVID restrictions are increasingly being relaxed and in-person learning for school-age children has resumed, we worry that we may see an increase in measles cases or even outbreaks in the future,” she added.

However, the pandemic isn’t the only possible cause of an increase in measles cases.

“Measles still exists in many parts of the world,” noted Schaffner. “Today, travel is easy. People from other parts of the world who are in the incubation stages and do not have any symptoms can spread measles to people in the United States. People from the United States who are unvaccinated can go overseas and catch the virus and then bring it back.”

Typically, unvaccinated people are found in clusters because they tend to be around those who think and view the world in similar ways, Schaffner said.

But with the anti-vaccination sentiment that has grown from COVID-19 immunizations, he said unvaccinated people are more scattered and can transmit the illness throughout more locations.

Pediatricians across the United States are playing catch-up.

Many are reaching out to their patients and their families to set up appointments for checkups and immunizations missed during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Mandates are a terrific asset,” Schaffner said. “‘No shots, no school’ works.”

When almost every child is immunized, viruses have a diminished chance of spreading. However, the anti-vaccination movement is more robust than in the past, and some people want all vaccination mandates to end.

If that happens and parents begin opting out of childhood vaccines, diseases like measles, mumps, chickenpox, and even polio can spread more rapidly.

“Parents should seek credible sources of information when making decisions regarding vaccines,” Schaffner said. “The MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine was approved in 1971, so there are decades of safety and effectiveness data. This vaccine was a game changer in eliminating measles from the U.S., and I strongly recommend parents have their children vaccinated as soon as possible.”