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‘Like putting a lighted match into a can of gasoline.’ 5 things to know about measles

Getting vaccinated can help stop measles from spreading

Since measles is still common in many countries, unvaccinated travelers bring measles to the U.S. and it can spread. But you can protect yourself, your family, and your community with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.
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Since measles is still common in many countries, unvaccinated travelers bring measles to the U.S. and it can spread. But you can protect yourself, your family, and your community with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Measles outbreaks have been reported in parts of Washington, New York and Texas, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

Once thought to be nearly eradicated in the United States, measles has gained ground with the advent of the anti-vaccination movement, USA Today reported. A quarter of the kindergartners in one Washington county now battling an outbreak are not vaccinated, the publication says.

“People aren’t scared about measles,” said Paul Offit, director of the vaccine education center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, according to the publication. “It is not just that we’ve largely eliminated these diseases. We’ve eliminated the memory of these diseases. People don’t realize how sick it can make you.”

Here’s what you need to know:

1. How does measles spread?

The measles virus spreads mostly through coughing and sneezing — and it’s incredibly contagious, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

“Most bacteria and viruses, you … have to breathe in a lot of those viruses to get sick, but with measles, it takes very few,” said Dr. Karen Smith, director of the California Department of Public Health, according to The Sacramento Bee.

The virus can live for up to two hours in the air or on infected surfaces, the CDC says. Infected people can spread measles from four days before developing a rash to four days afterward.

Ninety percent of those exposed to the virus who are not immune will come down with measles, also called rubeola, the CDC says.

“When you have large numbers of unimmunized people and you introduce measles into that population, it’s like putting a lighted match into a can of gasoline,” said Alan Melnick, public health director in Clark County, Washington, USA Today reported.

2. What are the symptoms?

Most people develop measles symptoms 10 to 14 days after being exposed to the virus, the Mayo Clinic reports.

Symptoms can include fever, dry cough, runny nose, sore throat, inflamed eyes and, most famously, skin rashes, spots and bumps, the clinic says.

The face normally breaks out first, with the rash spreading down the body, arms and legs as the fever spikes, the Mayo Clinic reports.

3. How is measles treated?

No prescription medication exists to treat measles, HealthLine reports. Symptoms normally last about two weeks.

Aspirin can relieve fever and muscle aches, the site says, while rest, fluids and humidifiers can make patients more comfortable. Doses of Vitamin A also can help, according to the site.

People with measles may be isolated and those exposed may be quarantined by public health officials to try to curb the spread of the disease, The Sacramento Bee reported.

4. Can you die from measles?

In 2016, 89,780 people died of measles around the globe, the World Health Organization reported. An estimated 7 million people caught the virus in 2016, mostly in Africa and Asia.

In the U.S., 86 people from 19 states caught measles in 2016, CNN reported. The last measles death in the U.S. took place in 2015, the Centers for Disease Control says.

Measles can be most dangerous for children under age 5 and adults over age 20, the CDC says.

Common complications include diarrhea and ear infections, but more severe complications include pneumonia and inflammation of the brain, which can result in hearing or intellectual disabilities. Pregnant women who catch the virus may give birth prematurely.

5. How can you prevent measles?

The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine builds up immunity to the virus, the Mayo Clinic reports. The first dose is normally given between 12 and 15 months, with a second dose between ages 4 and 6.

The measles vaccine was first developed in the United States in 1963, with an improved version devised in 1968, the CDC reported.

In 2000, health officials declared measles eliminated in the U.S., mainly through vaccinations, according to the CDC.

The rise of the anti-vaccination movement, which encourages parents not to vaccinate their children citing contamination and autism fears, has sparked a resurgence of the disease, USA Today reported.

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Don Sweeney has been a newspaper reporter and editor in California for more than 25 years. He has been a real-time reporter based at The Sacramento Bee since 2016.

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