Should You Be Worried About Measles Or What?

Photographed by Rochelle Brock.
You may have heard that there is a measles outbreak happening right now, affecting people in 21 states including Washington D.C. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 107 people were reported to have measles from January 1 to July 14 this year.
Scary as that may sound, when you look at numbers from recent years, this amount of measles cases is somewhat normal. "Almost every year you can find a few outbreaks like this of varying size depending on the circumstance," says Stephen Morse, PhD, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center who specializes in infectious disease outbreaks. In 2017, there were 118 cases, in 2016 there were 86 cases, and in 2015 there were 188 after a particularly bad outbreak in Disneyland. And in this instance, it doesn't mean that all 107 cases are related to one another.
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But that doesn't mean that measles outbreaks are NBD. "It should get our attention, because it means it’s still there, and we can’t forget about it," Dr. Morse says. Measles is a super infectious virus that spreads through coughing and sneezing, according to the CDC. If untreated, measles can lead to serious complications, like brain swelling and damage. About 1 in 4 people who get measles will be hospitalized, and 1 or 2 out of 1,000 people with measles will die, according to the CDC.
If you're spooked by the mere thought of getting measles, or unsure how this recent outbreak affects you, ahead Dr. Morse explains what you need to know.
What makes measles so rampant?
"There are two things about measles that I think are significant: it’s one of the most transmissible viral diseases. About 10 times more transmissible than even influenza, which is pretty transmissible. In theory, one case could give rise to an average of 10 additional cases if you had nothing to stop it. You can imagine how quickly that could snowball."
How worried should people be about contracting measles if they've had the vaccine? Like, can the vaccine wear off?
"We still don't have a very definite answer, but we think it is possible that immunity can wear off. Clearly, it’s got to have some point at which it begins to wane or reduce, because if that weren’t true, we wouldn’t need to re-immunize children when they enter school. In general, the immunity usually is pretty good, and especially when we give it after the second time, and probably lifelong for most people. We do know there are going to be exceptions. Even immunized people have become infected."
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If you live in a state where there's an outbreak, what can you do to stay safe?
"The important thing is everyone should make sure that they do know what their status is, and whether they’ve had the vaccine. If you're concerned about it, you can go and see if you still have a good antibody level in your blood to determine if you should get it again."
Wait, so should we be freaked out by this latest outbreak?
"It should be a warning that we really need to stay vigilant, because once these things have been controlled for immunization or other measures, we often just completely forget about them. If we don’t keep up the preventive measures, we will see larger outbreaks. Not every measles case that starts an outbreak is necessarily important, but many of them are simply because there are places where measles is not as controlled as it is in the more industrialized places."
"Measles, luckily for us, is really only transmitted from person to person, so the whole idea of immunization is really to break the train of transmission. So, if there’s an outbreak, the thing to do is get in touch with your doctor or healthcare provider, and find out whether there's something they should do."
Interview has beed edited and condensed for clarity.
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