Understanding Measles and the MMR Vaccine

Understanding Measles and the MMR Vaccine

Measles is one of the world’s most contagious diseases. Until the development of the vaccine about fifty years ago, almost every single person in the United States caught the disease. This meant about three or four million American children came down with measles every single year. Thousands of Americans were hospitalized with complications. Several hundred would ultimately die from measles annually. After the vaccine became widely available in the late nineteen sixties, the number of cases of measles in the United States dropped drastically. According to the CDC, by 1981, Americans saw an eighty percent reduction in the number of American children with measles. Since that time, measles has largely disappeared from this country. By 2000 American health officials were confident they had eliminated all cases of wild measles.

The elimination of millions of annual measles cases in the United States and many other nations remains one of the greatest of all public health triumphs. Unfortunately, in recent years the number of measles cases in the United States and globally has started to climb again. In 2014, CDC officials reported 667 cases of measles nationwide. In 2018, there were 349 measles cases.  More than half of all America states had at least one case of measles.  This year looks to have the greatest number of measles cases since the start of widespread MMR vaccine use. As of August 2019, 1182 Americans have a confirmed case of measles. According to the CDC more than a hundred have been hospitalized with complications. The majority were not vaccinated.

The spread of measles has not been evenly distributed. The current measles epidemic is centered in certain states and cities. As of August 2019, 384 of the more than a thousand measles patients were New Yorkers. Measles is not a minor illness. Roughly one in five people measles patients will face complications severe enough to require hospitalization. A child may develop swelling of the brain that can lead to hearing loss and intellectual disability. Pregnant women with the measles are vulnerable to problems that may include early delivery, low birth weight and even fetal death.  Measles can also be life threatening with a one in one thousand chance of death.  In addition, Princeton University researchers have found measles can weaken the immune system for several years. Children are left highly vulnerable to other infections even after recovering.

Under these circumstances, it is understandable that many New Yorkers may wonder what they can do to protect their family members. Luckily, many adults are immune to measles. This is because they have had measles as children or gotten the vaccine. One of the most at-risk groups are infants and toddlers. Moms should take care to wash their hands as often as possible. The measles virus has been shown to linger for up to two hours on surfaces and remain in the air for that long after an infected person has passed. Babies under six months should be kept away from crowds whenever possible. They have passive immunity against measles via maternal antibodies transferred during the 3rd trimester. This offers a minor degree of protection against measles. It is why young babies are not given the vaccine until that time. For a better form of immunity known as active immunity, it is best to vaccinate.

Those living in high risk zip codes such Williamsburg, Borough Park, and Sunset Park, or who are traveling internationally to all countries, can opt for an early dose of the MMR vaccine for their babies at six months. Parents should strongly consider the use of the vaccine at this age for many reasons. Doing so provides a baby with at least some measure of active protection. It is also advisable for parents who are planning to travel to places where additional measles epidemics have been reported such as Israel, Brazil, the Ukraine, France and the Philippines. Health officials have found that a single dose of the MMR for children under nine months at this point can be up to seventy-two percent effective. All parents should get their children another dose of the MMR vaccine should be given when the child is between twelve and fifteen months old. This should be considered their first MMR shot.

A single dose can be up to ninety percent effective in preventing outbreaks. Two doses will protect more than ninety-five percent of children against measles. As CDC officials recommend for Americans, children between the ages of four and six should be given another MMR or MMVR booster. At our office, we offer an early second dose of MMR or MMRV.  We also  strongly recommend it if the child will be traveling internationally. This dose completes the series. A child won’t need another dose at 4 yrs of age. Adults who are concerned about their own immunity status can check with a doctor. All those who are around children including caregivers, teachers and parents should be up-to-date on their vaccines. This is the best way to protect every member of the community from dangerous and deadly vaccine-preventable diseases.