More than 1,000 American children now have measles, a tragic increase from the year 2000, 19 years ago, when there were none.
From 1963, when scientists created an effective vaccine, heroic efforts worldwide wiped out the disease — or, at least, public health doctors thought so.
Yet now the childhood scourge, that once killed hundreds every year, has crept back like Charles Dickens’ Jacob Marley rising from the dead. There are measles cases this year in 22 states, including Pennsylvania, and the number of measles cases today is the largest since 1994.
When I had measles long ago, I was too young to realize how dangerous it was, but I do remember my mother hovering over my bed, anxious and frightened.
The virus that causes measles is very contagious, spreading through the air when someone who has the disease coughs or sneezes. The virus can remain infectious in the air for up to two hours after an infected person has sneezed or coughed nearby.
It’s easy for victims who have not had the vaccine to catch measles from someone else. In one measles case in this state, in a man near Pittsburgh who was traveling in Europe caught the disease from someone there who wasn’t vaccinated.
The great danger is that today’s situation could take us back to the bad old days of the 1950s, when the Centers for Disease Control counted as many as 500,000 measles cases a year.
I wrote about this several months ago when I saw the number of measles cases rising. The huge outbreaks before the measles vaccine became available put many thousands of children in hospitals — often with pneumonia — and, each year, gave more than 1,000 children encephalitis, a disease that often makes its victims deaf or leads to brain damage.
Symptoms appear about a week or two after a person encounters the measles virus. Victims begin with what seems like a cold — a cough, red eyes, a runny nose and then a high fever. Another two days and a doctor can see white spots in the child’s mouth; then the red measles spots break out all over the body and the fever goes way up.
Doctors have administered measles vaccinations literally by the billions, but even a 5% reduction in vaccination coverage can triple measles cases nationwide.
A little known federal program shows just how rare it is for someone to claim that vaccines cause harm. Since 2007, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has needed to pay claims on only about two out of every 1 million doses of the measles vaccine.
Some religious groups also reject measles vaccinations. New York, which has counted 184 measles cases in a single county, has acted quickly to bar all unvaccinated people exposed to the disease from entering public gathering places, including houses of worship. And, in the city itself, the Board of Health has filed an emergency declaration ordering mandatory vaccinations in four Brooklyn ZIP codes.
“This is about protecting kids and it’s also about protecting some adults, including pregnant women, folks who are going through medical treatment like chemotherapy, some seniors with compromised health conditions,” said mayor and presidential candidate Bill de Blasio. “Measles is very, very serious.”
As I’ve said before, people my age should tell their children and grandchildren that it’s OK to get the measles vaccination. Doing so can save their lives and the lives of others.