US measles scare: With 5 airports on alert, here are all the reasons why the contagious virus is so dangerous
Health authorities link the US outbreaks to travelers who brought measles back from other countries, including Israel, Ukraine and the Philippines
Five US cities – Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Austin, Texas, and Richmond, Virginia – are on alert, after an American infected with measles made a stop at three different airports on December 17.
"It appears that this individual contracted this disease while traveling in Europe in late November to early December," Dr. Mark Escott, interim head of Austin Public Health, said during a news conference on Monday, December 23.
After three days, the man took a flight from Austin to Chicago, with a connecting flight to Virginia. This, however, is not the only case. Earlier this month, there were reports of a possible exposure to the highly contagious disease at the Los Angeles International Airport and Denver International Airport.
Now, health experts are keeping an eye on possible measles outbreaks – as travelers can bring back the disease from infected countries.
Though measles was eliminated in the US in 2000, the virus managed to make a comeback this year, affecting 1,276 Americans so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
However, in the latter half of the year, the number of cases has gone down drastically – however, the Texas case indicates that the dreadful saga is far from over.
The impact on humans
People show symptoms – cough, fever, runny nose, red eyes, sore throat, white spots inside the mouth – within 10 to 12 days of exposure to the virus.
After the initial symptoms set in, people start developing widespread rashes, which appears as flat red spots or small raised bumps on top of reddened skin, starting with the face at the hairline and then spreading to the neck, torso, arms, legs, and feet. The rashes typically fade away in a couple of days.
It is said that about 40% of these patients end up developing complications, especially seen among children or people with a weak immune system. The most common is pneumonia, where one in every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia – which also accounts for most measles-related deaths.
Other complications include blindness, croup, mouth ulcers, ear infections, or severe diarrhea are less common. Some children develop damage in their heads: one in 1,000 show swelling in the brain, which can lead to convulsions, loss of hearing, and intellectual disabilities.
And one or two in 1,000 children will die of the infection, according to CDC. More recently, scientists found children who get infected with the virus become more vulnerable to other diseases as their body forgets how to put up a fight against other diseases.
Why is measles so contagious?
The virus tops the list of the most contagious viruses on Earth. A sneeze or a cough from an infected person is enough to infect 12 to 18 unvaccinated people around, which is way higher than what other viruses such as Ebola, HIV, or SARS are capable of doing.
What is worse, the virus can stay on surfaces for up to two hours undisturbed.
Before 1963, it was so potent that it infected 4 million measles people, killing 500 the US every year. It made children its primary target, becoming the leading killer of children globally – but this was before a vaccine came into the picture.
The whole landscape began to change after the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963. And by 2000, people were vaccinated enough to incapacitate the virus. The US had eliminated the dreadful virus since.
However, the virus managed to stay put in other countries and has only grown stronger in the recent past. In 2018, the world saw a 300% rise in measles cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Ukraine, Madagascar, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Yemen, and Brazil are among the countries most affected, according to a WHO report.
According to the CDC, 82 people brought measles to the US from abroad in 2018. This is a concern because the outbreak in the US typically begins when a traveler brings the virus back from a country where the virus thrives.
And the virus returned to its former self in the US. Health authorities link the US outbreaks to travelers who brought measles back from other countries, including Israel, Ukraine and the Philippines.
To make matters worse, some people in the US have been turning away from vaccination – leading to a spike in measles cases this year – and the highest since 1992.
Experts say thanks to misleading reports that the vaccine causes more harm than good, some people stayed unvaccinated, giving the virus enough grounds to spread.
Vaccination rates dropped in parts of the country that make it easier for people to opt out of their shots. The most recent 2018 analysis of US vaccine policies found that states with both religious and philosophical exemptions were associated with a 2.3 percent decrease in measles-mumps-rubella vaccine rates.
Why is vaccination important?
The measles vaccine or the MMR shot offers protection against measles, mumps, and rubella. Most people who are vaccinated with MMR will be protected for life, says CDC.
Children must receive two shots to keep themselves out of harm's way. After receiving the first shot between 12 and 15 months of age, the CDC recommends a second shot anytime between four and six years of age.
Contrary to what some people believe, measles vaccines are not only safe but effective too. The vaccine contains a live but weakened version of the virus. Once injected into your, body, the weakened virus instigates the immune system to respond to the virus.
As a result, the body makes antibodies against the virus. These antibodies, in turn, will come in handy, when the virus attacks you in the future. Two doses of measles vaccine are about 97% effective, and one dose is about 93% effective, according to the CDC.
Occasionally, some people may experience mild side-effects. For instance, one in six people may develop fever, and one in 20 may show mild rashes.
Harsher side-effects are either non-existent or are extremely rare, says the CDC. Fewer than one in a million people go on to develop serious allergic reactions.
"Other conditions like deafness, long-term seizures, and permanent brain damage are so rare that it is hard to tell whether they are caused by the vaccine," says the CDC.
Can measles affect people even after being vaccinated?
During this year's outbreak, health experts saw the virus spread among a small proportion of the vaccinated population – fully or partially.
"In a setting where there is extreme disease pressure, we know there can be vaccine failure," Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC's national center for immunization and respiratory disease tells USA News.
She also advises people who have traveled through airports in Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Austin, Richmond in early December should check in with their doctors.