Dr. Andi Shane
Dr. Andi L. Shane

By Dr. Andi L. Shane

The recent measles outbreak linked to an exposure at an amusement park in California has been a topic of discussion and concern among parents. There have been more than 100 measles infections in 17 states. Many parents are worried about protecting their children, as measles is highly contagious. A person with measles will infect nine out of 10 unimmunized people.

In addition to the fever, cough, red eyes and extreme discomfort for seven to 10 days that can result from a measles infection, some children may experience ear infections, pneumonia and brain swelling. In the U.S., approximately three of 10 people who get measles will develop one or more complications, and one to two of every 1,000 children with measles will die from respiratory and neurologic complications.

None of this has to happen, and none of it should happen. The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is effective, safe and available to healthy people over 1 year of age. The most important thing you can do to protect your children from measles is to have them vaccinated according to the schedule prescribed by their pediatrician.

MMR vaccines are typically given in two doses. The first dose, given between 12 and 15 months of age, is 93 to 95 percent effective. The second dose is given between ages 4 and 6 and raises effectiveness to 97 to 99 percent.

When more than 90 percent of people are vaccinated, “herd protection” is achieved. Herd protection is important for at-risk groups that cannot be vaccinated, such as infants, or people with weakened immune systems. These groups are also the most likely to suffer serious complications from measles should they become infected. If immunization rates fall below 90 percent, herd protection is lost.

Given the success and importance of vaccines, why do some parents opt not to vaccinate their children? In some ways, vaccines are victim to their own success.

As vaccines became available in the 1960s, the number of measles cases in the U.S. steadily declined from more than 500,000 per year to being declared eliminated in 2000. Since then, a small number of cases have been observed yearly (measles is still commonly transmitted in other countries and can be brought into the U.S. by unvaccinated travelers) but most Americans have not seen measles or other vaccine-preventable illnesses.

When we don’t see illnesses such as measles, we underestimate their severity or assume that our children will not be affected. Some are even skeptical of the necessity or safety of vaccines. In reality, even the most serious side effects of the MMR vaccine are less likely than the risk of complications from measles. Numerous research studies have proven no link exists between receipt of the MMR vaccine and the development of autism.

Twenty million people around the world become infected with measles each year; 146,000 die. We are fortunate to live in a country where we can ensure that every child is protected against measles. The ability to stop the spread of measles starts with being immunized.

Dr. Andi L. Shane is medical director of Hospital Epidemiology, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta