WASHINGTON — Six more cases of measles have been linked to the Disneyland outbreak, bringing the total to 88. That has some parents in the Washington D.C. area wondering if a similar outbreak could happen here.
Local pediatricians say it’s been quite a while since they saw a case of measles, in large part because almost all kids in the region are routinely vaccinated.
“I think that parents in the area are good about immunizing their children,” says Dr. Linda Fu, a pediatrician who heads the immunization program at the Children’s National Medical System.
She says there are good laws in D.C., Maryland and Virginia requiring certain vaccinations before a child can start school. It is difficult for parents to opt out, though a few do, putting their offspring and others at risk.
“Nine out of 10 people who are not immunized will catch measles from someone who is infected,” says Fu, noting it can be an incredibly contagious disease among the non-immunized.
For those who get their shots on time, the vaccine is incredibly effective, but Fu cautions parents against being complacent.
That’s because this region beckons a lot of international travelers, and they can bring in the disease from countries in Europe and Asia where measles has not been eradicated.
“In the United States we only have outbreaks when people bring it in from other countries,” Fu explains. That is what happened at Disneyland when an asymptomatic visitor from abroad infected dozens of people.
Most of those infected at Disneyland had never received the measles vaccine. But a few had been vaccinated and their protection was not 100 percent.
It could be that they were due for a booster, or for some reason, the level of protection was not as good as it should have been, and with a lot of measles virus around, the dosage was just not strong enough to beat off the disease.
That is why pediatricians like Linda Fu urge parents not just to immunize their own kids, but make sure others do the same. “Advocate to other parents,” she stresses, “say ‘I want my child to be safe and that means my child is vaccinated but you need to vaccinate your child as well.”
The goal is what is called “herd immunity,” meaning if almost everyone is vaccinated, the disease won’t spread.
Fu says the measles vaccine is very effective when given when a child is about a year old, with a follow-up booster before first grade. And while patients can have a slight reaction to the shot, it is far less risky than catching the disease.
Although many people consider it to be just another childhood illness, measles can be extremely dangerous. Three out of 10 people who get the disease go on to get some sort of complication. Fu says they range from easily treatable ones like ear infections and diarrhea, to pneumonia and even an infection of the brain called encephalitis