Blog

August 10, 2019

Measles is Back


Four Ways Parents Can Prepare Before Sending Kids Back to School

Sophia L. Thomas DNP, FNP-BC, PPCNP-BC, FNAP, FAANP

When scientists discovered the measles vaccine, many believed the disease would only live on in history books. This year, it’s headline news.

As of June, 1,044 cases were reported, marking the biggest measles comeback in 25 years. For those keeping track, measles peaked in 1958 with 763,000 cases, and in 2000 it was effectively eliminated in the U.S. Now it’s back, which means we’ve managed to turn back the hands of time and undo one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of the last century.

The resurgence of measles is especially troubling for parents as they prepare for another school year. While all 50 states have laws that require children to be vaccinated before attending public school, 45 states allow religious exemptions and 15 states allow philosophical exemptions. These exemptions make it not only possible but likely that unprotected kids are in school, putting themselves and others at risk.

The problem with measles is it spreads like wildfire. It’s so contagious that 90% of unvaccinated people who enter a room up to two hours after a person with measles has left will become infected. Not surprisingly, one child with measles can expose hundreds to the disease in a matter of minutes, spreading the net of infection to baby siblings, elderly relatives and immune-suppressed neighbors.

We’ve seen this dynamic play out in Clark County, Washington, where in 2017, more than 75% of kindergartners received their vaccinations, far below the national average, and nowhere near what is needed to establish “herd immunity,” when enough of the population is vaccinated to avoid having a single exposure turn into a full-blown outbreak. Fast forward two years and we see the domino effect unfold ⁠— nearly 800 students were forced to miss school because of potential exposure to measles, and in a backward turn of fate, there was a vaccination surge of nearly 500% because parents were faced with the very real possibility that their child could contract measles.

As more cases like this make national news, parents are growing increasingly concerned that a 1950s-esque measles outbreak will devastate their community. In anticipation of the first day of school, here’s what parents can do to help protect their children:

  1. Get your child immunized. At least 90% of the population must be vaccinated to control the spread of the disease ⁠— any less and a single exposure can lead to an outbreak, particularly among those who are medically unable to be vaccinated. When healthy unvaccinated kids spread the disease, more vulnerable people suffer.
  2. Adamantly encourage others to immunize their children. Parents are some of the most avid seekers ⁠— and givers ⁠— of advice. Share vital information with others to help them make informed decisions that will directly impact the safety and wellbeing of their children.
  3. Know the symptoms. The most recognizable symptoms of measles are a very high fever, tiny white spots in the mouth and eventually a red or brownish blotchy rash. Before the rash occurs, however, a child may have cold-like symptoms including a cough, runny nose, fever and red, watery eyes. Symptoms may take up to two weeks to develop, and people are contagious up to four days before and after the telltale rash develops. When in doubt, see a provider immediately if you suspect symptoms, and report confirmed cases immediately.
  4. Find out the outbreak protocol in your community. As mentioned, most states allow religious exemptions in addition to medical exemptions, which means there may be kids in your school who are unprotected. When a single case of measles is detected, these children will likely be required to stay home ⁠— what health officials call school exclusions. In the case of Clark County, that outbreak would not be considered over until two incubation periods(42 days) had passed without a new case reported, but each scenario is different and kids may be required to stay isolated for different intervals of time. 

So far, 30 states have reported at least one case of measles, and some areas are declaring health emergencies to help combat dangerous outbreaks. In response, many states are rethinking their vaccine exemption policies to help ensure more kids are protected. While legislation catches up with the reality that once-eradicated measles is very much alive and dangerous in our communities, it will take every parent doing their part to protect their child ⁠— and their community ⁠— from this dangerous, preventable disease. Before another school year starts, advocate for vaccinations in your community. Spreading the word will help stop the spread of disease!