Despite high vaccination rate, Summit County urges locals to protect themselves against measles
In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that the endemic measles virus had been “eliminated” in the United States, meaning that the virus no longer had a continuous presence of 12 months or more in the country.
Since then, measles outbreaks have been caused every year by the virus being imported from travelers outside the country, with a low of 37 cases in 2004 to a high of 667 cases in 2016.
Just four months into this year, the CDC has reported 704 cases of the measles in 22 states, with a single case in Colorado. That stands as the most cases of measles in the U.S. in 25 years, marking concerning regression in medical progress against communicable diseases.
The majority of measles cases involve unvaccinated people, and the disease is spreading quickest in communities with relatively low vaccination rates.
Colorado is last in the country when it comes to measles vaccination rates for kindergartners at 88.7%. The nationwide average is 94%. “Herd immunity,” the threshold at which communities are relatively safe from an outbreak of a contagious disease, is achieved between 92% and 95%.
Fortunately for Summit County, the vaccination rate for kindergartners is 95%, and there has not been a measles case in the county since the 1990s. However, the spiking measles cases across the country still have local health officials and workers worried.
“Measles is probably one of the most contagious viral illnesses known,” said Sara Lopez, nurse manager for the Summit County Public Health Department. “It’s transmitted by droplets or direct contact, and the virus may remain infectious in the air for up to two hours after a person has left the space. ”
Measles can take up to two weeks to incubate in a human host, during which time no symptoms are visible.
“We know before a person even knows they are sick, that person can expose wherever people gather,” Lopez said. “Without immunity, we would see 90 people out of 100 exposed get infected from that one person.”
When the virus finally releases its payload, an infected person may experience a high fever, dry cough, runny nose and eyes. The most apparent symptom from measles comes a few days later, with small blisters inside the lining of the mouth and red spots on the face and trunk.
High vaccination rates, while effective in preventing outbreaks, do not prevent outsiders with measles from spreading it to unvaccinated residents or people with compromised immune systems. Babies under 12 months are ineligible to receive the vaccine, leaving them vulnerable to the potentially lethal virus.
Lopez said that by its very nature as a resort destination for people from around the world, Summit County has at least some risk of a measles case popping up. The county and school district would both comply with state law if a measles case is spotted and report it to state agencies.
“With a highly contagious disease such as measles, we act quickly if it’s even suspected,” said Elizabeth Edgar Lowe, the health coordinator for the Summit School District. “Health agencies will conduct an immediate investigation including confirming a diagnosis, assess treatment options, determine the cause of illness and implement appropriate methods of disease control.”
The high level of contagion inherent in a virus like measles means that if a measles case is spotted, health officials will find out every place that person visited within the incubation time frame and perform decontamination if necessary. Public notices are often posted asking people if they had visited certain places at certain times the afflicted person visited. Those showing symptoms would be asked to visit a medical provider immediately.
The best way to prevent a measles infection is vaccination. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, from 1988 to 1990 there were over 100 measles cases per year in Colorado. A two-dose measles, mumps and rubella vaccine recommendation was issued for children. Since then, the most measles cases the state has seen is 62 in 1994, with no cases recorded from 2007 to 2012 and zero to two cases per year since then.
The county’s current vaccination recommendation varies between certain people. Children should receive two doses of the measles vaccine, one at 12 to 15 months and the second at 4 to 6 years old. Most adults who have received one dose of the measles vaccine on or after their first birthday should be protected. The state recommends health care workers and college students receive two doses, or provide evidence of immunity.
Adults with compromised immune systems unable to get the shot should ensure that family and close contacts get two doses. Adults vaccinated prior to 1968 with an inactivated measles vaccine or an unknown vaccine should be revaccinated with at least one dose of the vaccine.
Adults born before 1957 are likely to have acquired natural immunity, however adults of that age in a high-risk group — such as with compromised immune systems — should get a vaccine.
Before traveling to a country with ongoing measles outbreaks, infants from 6 to 11 months old should receive one dose of the vaccine. Adults and children over the age of 1 should receive two doses of the measles vaccine at least one month apart prior to travel.
For the most complete, accurate and up-to-date information about measles and its infection rate nationwide, visit the CDC website at CDC.Gov/Measles.
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