No one gets measles anymore, right? Think again. Government
health officials are reporting cases in nine states. And only one
of the people recently infected with the highly contagious disease
- usually considered very rare in the United States - had been
vaccinated against it.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC), 64 people contracted measles from January through April 2008
- the highest rate since this same time in 2001. Among those were
14 babies who were simply too young to get the combination measles,
mumps, and rubella (German measles) vaccine (called MMR).
And many of the kids infected hadn't been immunized because
their parents "claimed exemption from vaccination due to
religious or personal beliefs."
Although it doesn't occur very often in the United States,
measles still affects 20 million people worldwide every year, says
the CDC. And, despite the common perception that the disease just
causes a nasty rash, measles can actually be very serious and even
deadly - globally, it killed 311,000 kids under age 5 in 2005
Another epidemic of the disease broke out in the United States
between 1989 and 1991 when lapsing rates of immunizations among
preschoolers led to a sharp increase in the number of measles
cases, deaths, and children with permanent measles-related brain
More on Measles
Also called rubeola, measles is brought on by a virus and can
spread easily through the air by sneezing and coughing. It causes a
total-body skin rash and flu-like symptoms, including a fever,
cough, and runny nose.
In some cases, measles can lead to other health problems, such
as croup, and infections like bronchitis, bronchiolitis, pneumonia,
conjunctivitis (pinkeye), myocarditis (inflammation of the heart
muscle), and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Measles also
can make the body more susceptible to ear infections and bacterial
The only way to prevent your kids from getting measles is
immunization. Children should get the MMR vaccine at 12 to 15
months and then the follow-up booster shot between 4 and 6 years.
And if you're planning to take a trip abroad with your baby in
tow, infants ages 6 to 11 months should get the MMR vaccine,
However, some parents may be worried about the MMR vaccine
because of unsubstantiated theories claiming that the vaccine
But study after study has found no scientific evidence that
autism is caused by any single vaccine (including MMR), a
combination of vaccines, or the mercury-containing preservative
thimerosal, which was once widely used in many childhood vaccines
(including MMR) but has since been eliminated.
What This Means to You
A series of simple shots given from infancy to the teen years
can fend off some major illnesses in millions of kids. In fact, a
recent CDC study showed that routine childhood immunizations in the
United States have spurred the largest-ever decline in cases of
many devastating - but now highly preventable - diseases.
Yet, a more recent CDC study found that more than a quarter of
young U.S. kids (ages 18 months to 3 years) aren't getting
their vaccines on time.
Even though you may wonder why your children need immunizations
if many of the diseases they protect against are no longer
prevalent in the United States, the fact is that infectious
diseases that are rare or nonexistent here (because of immunization
programs like measles and polio) are still huge problems in other
parts of the world.
That means if immunization rates are allowed to drop among U.S.
children, the spark for a major epidemic would be only an airplane
flight away - when a disease could be introduced by just one
unimmunized person (either an American traveling overseas or
someone coming into the United States). Case in point: One
12-year-old boy from Japan who unknowingly had measles came to the
United States for the August 2007 Little League World Series and
passed the infection on to others.
Granted, a single child's chance of catching a disease is
low if everyone else is immunized. But each person who isn't
immunized gives these highly contagious diseases one more chance to
So, even if you've made the decision to not vaccinate your
children, it's not just your kids who could be at risk of
catching certain preventable diseases - they could pass them on to
other children, too (like the infants in the recent measles
outbreaks who were too young to be vaccinated).
That why it's only safe to stop vaccinations for a
particular disease when that disease has been totally wiped out
worldwide, as in the case of smallpox.
So, make sure your kids get all of the immunizations they need
on time at every age:
- Schedule and keep all of your family's regular
- Get routine vaccinations on schedule as children grow - not
just in the infant and toddler years, when most vaccines are
given. Routine vaccines and boosters are also recommended between
the ages of 4 and 6, 11 and 12, and then again before teens enter
- Find out when your kids can get any vaccine that's in
- Ask your doctor about any new vaccines. Boosters and vaccines
are added to the childhood immunization schedule all the time -
like the now-recommended chickenpox booster for 4- to 6-year-olds
and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine for 11- to 12-year-old
- Never skip a dose in a vaccine series. Kids don't have
adequate protection if they don't get all of the recommended
doses for each series at the right time.
- Ask your doctor if you or your kids need any catch-up
immunizations or boosters to ensure that your protection is up to
date, especially if you're planning to travel overseas.
Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: May 2008
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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