The word measles once struck fear in the hearts of parents – it is more contagious than the common cold and kills at an uncomfortable rate. Before the vaccine in the United States, there were 48,000 hospitalizations with 450-500 deaths annually from complications from the measles. Since the introduction of the vaccine 1963, however, rates of the measles plummeted, and the United States declared the disease eliminated in 2000.
Between 2000 and 2010, the United States averaged 60 cases of measles per year, with few deaths. The average number of cases is steadily rising, with 101 cases already in 2019, less than a month and a half into the year. If this continues, we are on track to have a record year for the measles – which, unfortunately, means possible deaths of our children, especially those under five years old.
Colorado is one of the 10 states that have reported a case of the measles in 2019. It is not considered an outbreak in our state as an outbreak requires three or more cases related to each other. We are lucky so far with just one case.
As Colorado parents, should we be worried about the measles?
Luckily, we have access to highly educated medical professionals to guide us through times like this. I was able to ask Dr. Lori Smith, a pediatrician with Centura Health right here in Colorado, a few questions about vaccinations and the measles so she could ease our minds.
In 2015-2016 (the latest available statistics), over 87 percent of kindergarteners were fully vaccinated against the measles. My first question to Dr. Smith was in the interest of the parental majority in Colorado: should parents of vaccinated children be worried about a measles outbreak in their area? Dr. Smith shed light on this.
The vaccine is administered in two doses. The first dose is 95 percent effective, and after the second dose, the vaccine is 99 percent effective. Even if your child had the first round of vaccines but not the second, the odds of contracting the virus are low. In the very rare case a vaccinated individual does come down with the measles, it is much less severe and shorter in duration.
Whew! That’s a relief. Most Colorado parents have already taken the best precautions against their children getting this nasty virus.
But what about unvaccinated children?
The first dose of the MMR vaccine that guards against the measles is not administered until a child is 12 months old. What about babies under a year?
Dr. Smith explains that moms pass their antibodies against the measles to their babies in the womb, and these antibodies stay with the baby for the first six months of their lives. The mother’s antibodies are also passed through breast milk to the infant, so moms can continue to protect their children while they are breastfeeding.
Even with these protective antibodies, herd immunity offers further protection to infants. The more immunized people in an area, the less likely an infant is to encounter the virus. Dr. Smith advises if you are in an area with active cases, you should avoid individuals who have a cough and avoid close contact with strangers.
This advice extends to anyone who is not vaccinated. For parents who have opted not to vaccinate their children, they can protect them by not allowing them to come into contact with sick individuals. This may be difficult, however, because unvaccinated children can contract the virus from someone who does not show any symptoms of the disease. This is one reason why unvaccinated children in areas where there are known outbreaks have been asked not to come to school.
In the case where parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children for one reason or another, Dr. Smith has sound advice for those families:
“It is understandable that parents want to avoid any complications of vaccines, and I encourage them to discuss their specific concerns with their doctor,” said Dr. Smith. ”I strongly recommend all children receive their vaccinations unless contraindicated for specific reasons; however if parents choose not to vaccinate they should learn about diseases and presenting symptoms. If symptoms develop, parents should have the child evaluated immediately and inform the clinic, urgent care, or ER of their concern.”
If your children have not received the MMR vaccine, you should read about and understand the symptoms of the measles. If your child is showing symptoms of the virus, take them to be seen by a medical professional and tell them right away your child is not vaccinated and has symptoms of measles. This will ensure your child can get the right tests and treatment.
Dr. Smith advises if your unvaccinated child does come into contact with an individual with the measles, they can receive the vaccine within 72 hours of exposure for protection against the virus. If the disease does develop, it is less severe, and your child will have a better chance of avoiding complications that can lead to death.
All in all, most children in Colorado have received the highly effective vaccine, and this will help protect our entire population, including those unvaccinated children. If your child is not vaccinated, do your due diligence to understand the risks of this nasty virus so you can protect your family in the event this disease rears its ugly head in Colorado once more.