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HealthConnections - Measles

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Measles outbreaks are on the rise with triple the amount of outbreaks so far in 2024 as compared to 2023. On this week's episode of HealthConnection Dr. Carole Myers, a professor emeritus in the University of Tennessee College of Nursing, talks with Dr. Megan Edwards, the health officer of the Knox County Health Department and a board certified pediatrician to discuss concerns about measles and what the public can do.

WUOT’s Carole Myers: According to the CDC, there have been 12 measles outbreaks in the first six months of 2024 and this compares with four outbreaks in 2023. The number of children not receiving the measles vaccine has increased. These disturbing trends impact not only unvaccinated children, but also people who are unable to get the vaccine and individuals with compromised immune systems. Let's get started by you painting a picture of measles in the United States today.

Megan Edwards: Imagine a nine month old little girl sitting in her pediatric and urgent care office. She feels terrible. She's got a runny nose, a cough, irritated eyes, and a new spectacular rash on her face and her trunk. She didn't know that Caleb brought measles back from his Italian vacation. Caleb isn't her classmate, her brother or her babysitter. He just happened to walk through a grocery store an hour before she did. There's a reason we've been hearing more about measles in the news. Cases in the US are the highest they've been since 2019 according to the WHO, measles cases in Europe are also a whopping 30 times higher than normal. This includes popular destinations for American tourists, like Italy and the UK.

Let's dig a little deeper. Tell me more about measles. Let's make sure we all know what it is.

Measles is caused by a paramyxovirus. Symptoms are soft, like many illnesses, with a cough or runny nose and watery eyes, that classic rash appears on day four and spreads from the face downward. Measles can spread from person to person via respiratory droplets. Most folks don't realize how long it sticks around. Two hours after the infected person has been in a room, measles is still in the air. It can also be transmitted four days before that rash shows up and four days after.

I think I have some indication. But why does what you have just described about measles matter? Help us understand the implications with declining vaccination rates.

This super contagious virus can get a foothold in our communities. Measles is one of the most contagious viruses that we know. Imagine a scenario with 100 kids - 10 are unvaccinated. If a single student shows up to that school, nine of those 10 unvaccinated kids will develop the disease. This is much higher than what we would see with flu or with even covid. Quarantine for those exposed children can also be very disruptive. If someone is unvaccinated or not immune and they're exposed to measles, they'll be asked to stay home for three weeks. Measles can also cause some very significant short term and long term health issues. More than 40% of the kids who get measles in the US will end up being hospitalized. Some develop pneumonia or even encephalitis afterwards. This can cause lifelong disabilities. There's also the effect of the immune system amnesia. The measles virus can reset your immune system so that it no longer remembers how to fight common cold and bacterial infections that it saw before. This is one of the reasons that so many kids develop pneumonia afterwards.

What can listeners do about the measles? How can they protect themselves and their family?

The good news is that all of that can be prevented with immunization, with the MMR vaccine. It's especially important to be that buffer for kids who are too young or too immunocompromised to receive measles vaccines. Well, the other thing that listeners can do is, if they're concerned about measles, that they can see a provider as soon as possible. Make sure to let that provider know that you're worried about measles so they can keep the rest of the kids in the waiting room safe.

The good news is we have a 95% immunization rate, but that's not in all communities.

Absolutely, so for the 2021 to 2022 school year for Knox County, Tennessee, the MMR coverage at kindergarten was 95.3% that puts us above that herd immunity level. However, that's an average. There are still pockets in our community that are below that rate and at risk for outbreaks. I want to make sure that the information that this is a safe vaccine is available and that we are in Knox County at a good rate, but that doesn't mean that we're out of the woods.

This transcript has been lightly edited for content.

Greg joined WUOT in 2007, first as operations director and now as assistant director/director of programming. His duties range from analyzing audience data to helping clear WUOT’s satellite dish of snow and ice. Greg started in public radio in 2000 in Shreveport, La., at Red River Radio and was, prior to coming WUOT, at WYSO in Dayton, Ohio, where he also was director of programming and operations.