This winter, measles outbreaks have reappeared. A total of 465 measles cases were confirmed in 19 states from January 1 through April 4, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That represents the second-greatest number of cases reported in the United States since measles was eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. While there have been no measles cases in Montana, people have started wondering about their own chances of getting this highly contagious respiratory disease.

Often an outbreak, such as those happening in the U.S., gets us thinking about our own health. Did I have a measles vaccine? Am I still protected? Are my children protected? Is my infant protected? Unfortunately, waiting until after an outbreak may be too late to protect yourself and loved ones from the potentially deadly disease.

Measles symptoms include cough, runny nose, eye irritation, fever and rash. The rash usually starts on the top of the body and moves downward. Measles can cause ear infections, pneumonia, seizures from high fevers and brain damage. Two or three out of a thousand cases reported in the United States results in death. Measles during pregnancy can contribute to miscarriage, premature labor and low birth-weight babies.

The virus is so contagious that it can linger on surfaces and in the air for up to two hours after an infected person leaves a room. Last year, 82 cases came into the United States, brought by travelers coming back from countries like Israel and Ukraine, where outbreaks are occurring. Measles is contagious for up to four days before the rash appears. As foreign visitors travel within the United States, or unvaccinated Americans come back from traveling overseas, the virus can move across the United States.

The first live measles vaccine was licensed in March of 1963 and the MMR vaccine — for measles, mumps and rubella — was licensed in April of 1971. In 1989, a second MMR was recommended as routine childhood immunization. Measles was no longer considered endemic, meaning always present, in the United States in 2000.

Two MMR injections are recommended for full protection. Babies routinely get their first shot at one year of age and a booster at age 4 to 6. The MMR injection is safe and effective. The first dose is 90 to 95 percent effective. An infant, ages 6-12 months, should be given an early MMR shot if the baby will be traveling outside the United States. Two more doses would be needed later.

People born before 1957 are usually considered immune to measles, since they lived through years of epidemic measles outbreaks before the measles vaccine was available. These individuals usually have had the disease and acquired immunity. Adults born before 1957, but who are at high risk for exposure to measles, should still receive two doses of MMR. Those high-risk categories include international travelers, health care providers and volunteers, and individuals working in or attending educational institutions after high school.

Measles can be prevented, but only with proper immunization. Call your healthcare provider to see if your child is up-to-date so numerous catch-up vaccines are not needed before your child starts kindergarten. Don’t wait for the disease to come to your children. Stop them from being at risk with vaccines that have proven to be effective.

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Karmen Hammermeister, a registered nurse and immunization specialist at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 247-3380 or karmen.ham@riverstonehealth.org