Opinion: Stop measles in its tracks

There is an infant in Georgia who may one day learn what a stir he created with his arrival in Atlanta from Kyrgyzstan a little more than a week ago. That little one brought with him the state’s first reported case of measles in three years.

He couldn’t have known how contagious measles is. Just as he unintentionally contracted it from an infected person in Kyrgyzstan, he unwittingly exposed at least 230 others to measles while traveling to Atlanta and after he arrived.

Measles spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Droplets from the nose or mouth become airborne or land on surfaces where they can live for two to three hours. A person with measles doesn’t even have to be present for someone else to be infected. Anyone can get measles if they are not vaccinated or don’t have measles immunity.

This is a serious disease that can lead to dangerous complications such as pneumonia, encephalitis (swelling of the brain), even death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that for every 1,000 measles cases reported in the United States, two to three deaths will occur.

That sounds dire – and make no mistake, as a doctor I know the many devastating consequences of measles – but the disease can be prevented with the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination. MMR is 97 to 98 percent effective, making it one of our best vaccines.

The CDC recommends children receive their first dose of MMR vaccine between 12 and 15 months of age, and a second dose between 4 and 6 years old. In Georgia, it’s more than a recommendation, it’s the law. Children must have two doses of MMR vaccine before they can enroll in day care or kindergarten.

In fact, 98.3 percent of Georgia’s children enrolling in kindergarten have received all required vaccinations, including MMR. The state allows only two exemptions: a medical exemption for those with compromised immune systems who cannot safely be vaccinated, and a religious exemption for those who provide a sworn statement indicating their religion forbids vaccination.

Most people born before 1957 have already suffered through measles. The good news for them is that once you’ve had measles, you have lifetime immunity. But between 1963 and 1967, many people received a vaccine with inactive or killed virus that was not as effective as we had hoped. It is very important for adults in their 50s to be checked for measles immunity. A simple blood test is all it takes.

Today, the MMR vaccine contains a live, but weakened, form of measles virus. When a person is vaccinated, that virus triggers a response similar to actually having measles, which then provides immunity.

I have heard all of the arguments against vaccination from those who believe it can cause health problems, such as autism. In my 30 years in medicine, there has never been any scientific evidence or firsthand anecdotal evidence that MMR or other vaccines cause autism.

The question about a possible link between MMR vaccine and autism has been extensively reviewed by multiple independent groups of experts in the U.S., including the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine. These studies and reviews have all concluded there is no association between MMR vaccine and autism.

As public health officials, we can take great pride that measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. But we also know that in this global community of constant travel, new cases can become outbreaks in a matter of hours. Parents and physicians need to be alert and pro-active. Vaccination is our best protection against measles and a host of other infectious diseases.

My hope is that little one from Kyrgyzstan who is now recovering from measles will grow up to learn he made quite an impact on our state – reminding Georgians of the pressing need to be vaccinated so we can stop this preventable disease in its tracks.

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald is commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

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