Let’s Talk About Measles

January 10, 2024

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Colorado, it’s time we had a serious talk. One in five of our state’s children is missing routine immunizations according to the latest data from Children’s Hospital Colorado. This is a problem! Our children deserve better. Vaccines are touted as the greatest achievement in the history of public health, but they only work if we choose to use them (and if enough of us use them to limit the spread of dangerous diseases). Let’s turn our attention today to measles specifically.

Measles, while eliminated in the United States in 2000, is still out there.

Measles, eliminated from the United States in 2000, is among the most dangerous of vaccine-preventable diseases, and it’s making a comeback. The measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination rate needs to be at 95% or above to adequately protect our communities. Data from the 2022 – 2023 school year shows the statewide kindergarten MMR vaccination rate to be well below that threshold at 86.8%. Globally, measles remains a threat. In fact, just last month a confirmed case of measles was identified in a teen who flew to Denver International Airport from overseas. While symptom monitoring of known contacts to this individual currently indicates it was contained and not further spread in the community, we can’t continue to rely on luck or chance. We’re only one plane ride away from a full on outbreak. 

The recent Colorado case of measles does not stand out as an anomaly. There is a current measles outbreak in Philadelphia, which may have spread to Delaware. Last year, Ohio saw an outbreak that led to 85 confirmed cases and spread to Kentucky. And in 2019, there were nearly 1,300 cases confirmed in 31 states, including Colorado. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before an outbreak makes its way back to our state. Let’s not go backwards!

Measles is so scary because it’s extremely contagious. 

Measles is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus can live in the air for up to two hours. You don’t even have to be in the same room as an infected person to get measles. Simply touching an infected surface or breathing contaminated air is all it takes. It is so contagious that an infected person can spread it to up to 90% of unvaccinated individuals they contact. An infected person is contagious four days before and four days after they develop a rash that appears at the hairline and spreads down over the body. This typically happens 2-4 days after first developing a high fever, cough, runny nose, and red, watery eyes.

Measles is especially dangerous in young children – even those that are healthy.

Certain groups are at increased risk from severe complications from measles, especially young children under the age of five. Even otherwise healthy children can experience complications from infection. Severe complications include hospitalization, pneumonia, encephalitis (swelling of the brain), and even death.

Other groups at higher risk from measles complications include adults over 20 years of age, pregnant people, and people with compromised immune systems.

Here’s what to do if you think you’ve been exposed to measles or are experiencing symptoms.

Measles infection should be taken seriously, and you should contact your healthcare provider by phone rather than showing up at a healthcare facility in person if you suspect exposure or are experiencing symptoms. You should not go out into public settings unless you need medical treatment. If you need treatment, call ahead to alert the healthcare facility so they can help minimize the risk of exposure to others. 

Widespread use of the MMR vaccine is the best tool we have to prevent the spread of measles. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children get two doses of MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella. The first dose should be given between 12 and 15 months of age. The second dose should be given between 4 and 6 years of age. All other age groups, excluding those born prior to 1957 or those who have evidence of immunity, should also be vaccinated against measles. Colorado law requires students to have their second dose of MMR vaccine prior to entering kindergarten. 

The MMR vaccine is both very safe and effective. Once you get the MMR vaccine, you are protected for the rest of your life against measles. The bottom line is that measles is a preventable disease. Children deserve to attend schools and child care centers where they are not at risk from inadequately vaccinated children. All Colorado kids deserve to be protected!

Does your child need to get caught up with MMR or other routine vaccines? Schedule an appointment with their medical provider or contact your local public health agency to get them caught up and get your questions answered. It’s up to all of us to ensure a healthy Colorado!

Immunize Colorado was formed in 1991 in response to alarmingly low vaccination rates across the state. At the time, only about 50% of Colorado’s children were adequately vaccinated. A group of physicians and other concerned individuals came together to strategize how to protect Coloradans from vaccine-preventable diseases and increase vaccine uptake. Much work remains. You can donate or discover other ways to get involved in supporting our commitment to healthy Colorado communities today!

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