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Measles cases are on the rise: Here's what you should know

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a Health Alert Network (HAN) Health Advisory to inform doctors and public health officials of an increase in measles cases across the United States – including in Missouri.

This advisory comes as the United States hits 58 confirmed cases of measles throughout the country since the beginning of the year– this number is already equal to the total number of confirmed cases in all of 2023.

According to the CDC, the majority of these cases have been linked to international travel and have been in children aged 12 months and older who had not received their measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.

"Immunization. That is going to be the most effective way of preventing measles infection.”
Dr. Amruta Padhye

Dr. Amruta Padhye, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at University of Missouri Health Care, said the early signs of a measles infection can often be mistaken for the common cold or influenza. However, measles can also cause ear infections, pink eye, a rash that spreads across the body, and even, in rare cases, inflammation of the brain.

There can also be long term complications of the illness – like immune system amnesia, where the body’s ability to fight off future infections is impaired.

“Nine out of 10 people - susceptible people - who are exposed to one person with measles can get that infection,” Dr. Padhye said.

Padhye said the population of “susceptible” people is higher than in years past – as vaccination rates have been declining steadily. She said this became more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, but parents are now also choosing to decline standard childhood immunizations.

According to the Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services, in the 2022 - 2023 school year, the rate of Missouri kindergarteners who had received their two MMR vaccines was 91.3%. This is compared to 95.4% in the 2016 -2017 school year.

“I would recommend to parents who have not vaccinated their kids for MMR to kind of think it through again, kind of look at the data,” Dr. Padhye said. “We know that, at least, you need a herd immunity of at least 95% people vaccinated to prevent ongoing transmission.”

Measles Cases and Outbreaks
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

Measles is a highly contagious disease, but was declared “eliminated” in the United States in 2000. This means there is no widespread local transmission, though cases are still possible in limited numbers.

The disease is spread through close contact and respiratory droplets, but can remain airborne for several hours – even after an infected person has left a room.

“This commonly affects the young children,” Dr. Padhye said. “So, we think about young infants, young school-going, you know - preschoolers, toddlers – if they have been unvaccinated. It can result in, since the elimination [of the disease], we talk about kind of… one in five cases of measles can result in hospitalization.”

She added while children are the most at risk, it can impact adults, especially those who are immunocompromised – such as those who have had an organ transplant or are undergoing cancer treatments.

Dr. Padhye said to make sure you are washing your hands regularly and using good hygiene protocols - like covering your cough or sneeze.

But at the end of the day, “most importantly, is immunization. That is going to be the most effective way of preventing measles infection,” Padhye said.

There is currently no specific data of how many cases have been confirmed in Missouri or where those cases have been reported. According to reporting from other organizations, there have been some in both the St. Louis and Kansas City regions.

Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.