The most recent outbreaks of measles in Washington State and mumps in Bozeman have shown us an outbreak is only a car ride or plane trip away. To many of us, measles seems like a disease of the past, but the disease remains prevalent in many parts of the world. Last year, a measles outbreak in Europe sickened more than 69,000 people.
Measles is more than just a rash. About one in four people in the United States who get measles will be hospitalized. One or two of 1,000 people with measles will die, even with the best care. Measles is extremely contagious, spreads by sneezing or coughing and if one person has it, nine of 10 people around him or her will get it if they are not immunized, or have not previously had measles.
The good news is that measles and mumps are vaccine-preventable diseases. The MMR vaccine — for measles, mumps and rubella — is safe and highly effective. Two doses of the MMR vaccine are 97 percent effective against measles and about 88 percent effective against mumps.
In February, RiverStone Health and our hospital partners, worked with school districts in Yellowstone County to contact parents of unvaccinated children to ensure they understood the potential consequences that an outbreak of measles or mumps might have on their child’s school attendance. Montana has not had a case of measles since 1990, and just one case at a school could be considered an outbreak.
If there is a confirmed case of measles or mumps in any school in Yellowstone County, RiverStone Health will take action under state law to protect children. A child who does not have at least one dose of the MMR vaccine may be excluded from school events and school activities, including sports, for 21 or more days after the last exposure to a measles or mumps case at his or her school.
One case of measles would put our entire community healthcare system on high alert. In mid-January, a Denver resident contracted measles after an overseas trip. This one case resulted in Denver Public Health trying to reach out to everyone who may have been exposed, with the list of exposure locations including an urgent care clinic and hospital emergency department. Identifying people who may have been exposed to measles in order to prevent it from spreading was an onerous and expensive task.
At this time, there are no cases of measles in Montana and no cases of mumps in Yellowstone County. But it is a good time to plan ahead and get immunized to protect yourself and your loved ones from infection. If you think you may have measles or mumps, call your healthcare provider before going to a doctor’s office, clinic or hospital to minimize exposing others.
Measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000 because of an effective vaccination program. However, measles could become a constant presence in the U.S. again if vaccine coverage levels drop. Anyone who is unvaccinated and has not previously had the disease is at risk of getting infected with measles and spreading it to others.
Since the beginning of 2019, 10 states have reported 159 cases of measles, which is slightly less than the number of cases reported for all of 2018. High-sustained measles vaccine coverage and rapid public health response are critical for preventing and controlling measles cases and outbreaks.