An Ohio measles outbreak currently underway should serve as a clear reminder that it’s time to get our children caught up on vaccinations—particularly for those who may have slipped behind schedule during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease that can result in severe, sometimes permanent, complications including pneumonia, seizures, brain damage, and even death. It’s caused by a virus that lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person and spreads easily through breathing, coughing, and sneezing.
While it’s one of the most contagious human viruses, it’s also almost entirely preventable through vaccination.
As of Tuesday, Dec. 13, the Ohio outbreak in and around Columbus had infected 74 people, most of them children who are unvaccinated (having zero doses of vaccine) or under-vaccinated (having had only one dose of a two-dose recommended vaccine). Of those cases more than half are among kids between 1 and 2 years of age, and more than a quarter of the patients required hospitalization. There have been no reported deaths.
In the United States as a whole, as of Dec. 8, 88 measles cases in five jurisdictions have been reported this year. The number is up sharply from the 49 cases reported in 2021 and 13 cases reported in 2020—and down considerably so far from the 1,274 reported in 2019 when several large outbreaks occurred in the United States.
There are currently no measles cases reported in Idaho, but it’s safe to say that public health officials are concerned. Measles anywhere is a threat everywhere, as the virus can quickly spread by infected people to multiple communities and across international borders.
Because measles is so contagious, communities should have a vaccination rate of at least 95 percent to keep the illness from spreading. Among children born during 2018 in Idaho, 93 percent had received their first dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine by 24 months of age, and about 95 percent had received their first dose by 35 months of age.
However, a lower proportion of Idaho children receive their second MMR dose before entering Kindergarten and are not considered fully protected, making our vaccination rate lower than 95 percent among Idaho school-aged children.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently warned about a drop in measles vaccination coverage in children during the COVID-19 pandemic, estimating that 40 million kids missed a measles-containing vaccine in 2021, including 25 million who missed their first dose and 14.7 million who missed their second dose.
In 2021, 22 countries experienced large outbreaks that have persisted into 2022. When combined with vaccination gaps, the outbreaks pose a threat everywhere. In 2021 there were an estimated 9 million cases and 128,000 deaths from measles worldwide.
The Ohio outbreak is believed to be tied to one of four separate cases over the summer among individuals who became infected after traveling to a measles-endemic country.
The message going into the holiday season of family travel and gatherings is clear. If you have a child who is 12 months of age or older, and not up to date with their measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, please make every effort to get them vaccinated as soon as possible.
Sarah Leeds is the manager of the Idaho Immunization Program in the Division of Public Health. She has served in this position since June 2019, focusing on increasing coverage among Idahoans of both routine and COVID-19 vaccines.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is dedicated to strengthening the health, safety, and independence of Idahoans. Learn more at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.
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