With the Olympic Games in London under way, we're all cheering for American athletes to bring home medals. Let's hope Americans who traveled to the Olympics bring back an interest in exercising - not the measles.
Measles has re-emerged in European countries, including popular destinations such as France and the United Kingdom. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were nearly 1,100 suspected measles cases in the U.K. last year. In contrast, there were only 222 measles cases in the United States in 2011, which are certainly fewer, but represent the largest number of cases here in 15 years.
Almost all of the measles cases in the U.S. involved unvaccinated American travelers who brought back the disease, or international visitors infecting other people who were not immunized. This is why it's so important for people planning trips to make sure their families are up-to-date on their vaccinations, and to watch for signs of measles when they return.
Symptoms begin with fever, cough, red eyes, and sore throat and usually appear one to two weeks after being infected. A rash then starts on the face and spreads down the body. Measles is spread through the air and is highly contagious, but travelers can't simply avoid people with a rash. A person is contagious up to four days before the rash appears and a room can remain infectious for up to two hours after the person leaves.
More outbreaks are occurring in the U.S. and each one requires significant amounts of time and resources to contain. A case of measles is like a fire alarm to public health officials and we respond to it like firefighters would to reports of a four-alarm blaze. It's critical for us to react quickly in order to keep the danger from spreading and endangering lives.
Because measles is no longer widespread in the U.S, people forget that measles is a serious disease, capable of causing permanent disability, even death. Before the measles vaccine was available in the U.S., up to 4 million people got measles each year, 48,000 were hospitalized, 1,000 suffered permanent brain damage or deafness, and about 500 died.
Current conditions significantly raise the threat of measles outbreaks: More parents are choosing to skip vaccines for their children, and international travel is common. Four years ago, an unvaccinated 7-year-old boy got measles in Switzerland and when he returned home to San Diego he came into contact with more than 800 people and infected eleven children, including a baby who was hospitalized.
The Olympics will end and summer travelers will come home, start unpacking and getting ready for school. During that time, we ask that you pay attention to illness and contact your medical provider if you or your family is ill. Public Health officials in Contra Costa like me will be vigilant, ready to put out any fires, but hoping we won't have to. And before the next time you travel, you can avoid disease by making sure that your family is vaccinated.
For more information on measles and immunizations, visit cchealth.org/topics/measles.
To see location-specific precautions visit the CDC's travel website at cdc.gov/travel.
Erika Jenssen is the Director of the Communicable Disease Programs for Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department.
Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.