Networx

Posted by Katie Marks | G+ | Mar 17, 2014

Measles Outbreaks Coast to Coast

Measles, measles, everywhere

Photo: Pete Lewis/Department for International Development, Flickr.Think of viruses like household pests: they creep in anywhere they sense a weak point in the defenses, and they'll happily settle in and spread if you don't get a firm hand on them. You could spend lots of money treating for them once they've arrived, whether we're talking antiviral drugs and hospitalization for a sick patient or tenting for termites, or you could get your doctor (or exterminator) to cut the problem off at the source, before it has a chance to spread. Exterminators are like doctors for your house, but if you've been picking up the phone to talk termites, ants, or roaches with an exterminator and you haven't been looking out for your own health, you might have a problem on your hands.

Just last week, we noted that a measles outbreak in the Bay Area was causing health problems and leading to numerous health warnings, especially for passengers on BART. Now, news of another outbreak has popped up, this time across the country in New York City, with four hospitalizations so far and victims as young as three months old. Measles, in other words, has seen an opening, and the virus is taking it with a vengeance, exactly like a rat slipping in through a hole in the wall or roaches drawn to crumbs you've left on the floor.

This serious illness can cause significant health problems, up to and including death. While people who were healthy at the time of infection may be able to fight it off without long-term effects, other patients are not so lucky. At best, they can experience scars and damage to the heart and nervous system. Measles was once a very common childhood illness, but that stopped when researchers developed an effective vaccine for it and distributed it widely, creating what's known as herd immunity -- essentially, so few people are effective hosts for a virus that it can't spread.

To bring up the exterminator comparison again, the vaccine is the steel wool in the holes in the wall, the mop that cleans up every scrap of food, and the lock on the trash can that keeps pests out of the garbage. But vaccines, like these measures, only work when they are applied regularly and consistently across the whole population, because even a well-vaccinated population has some outliers. Very young children can't have vaccines because their immune systems aren't strong enough yet, and vaccines are unsafe for some people with compromised immune systems, like those with autoimmune diseases and HIV.

That's why it's important for as many people as possible to get vaccinated in childhood, and for adults to keep up with their adult boosters to make sure they can't become measles reservoirs. With everyone staying vaccinated, rare incidents of infection have nowhere to go because the virus can't leap to anyone else, and it fizzles out before it has a chance to harm vulnerable infants, older adults, and people who can't get vaccines for health reasons.

Measles was supposedly eliminated from the United States in 2000, but it's coming back with a vengeance, bringing its unpleasant highly contagious rash into fashionable and poor neighborhoods alike, lurking under New York roofing and on Miami beaches. This resurgence has been attributed to the anti-vaccination movement in the United States, which has created large holes and gaps in a formerly tight net of herd immunity.

It's critically important to keep up with all your vaccinations as both a child and adult. Your doctor can provide advice on which vaccines and boosters are needed and when, as can the Department of Public Health in your area. Call for advice, and if you are concerned about the cost, you may qualify for free vaccinations. Many clinics offer traveling vaccination stations for people who can't afford to take time off from work, and drugstores frequently provide a quick vaccination option as well to offer yet another option.

Vaccination protects you from potentially fatal diseases, as well as the people around you. Get a vaccine so you can cuddle your friends' babies without having to worry, and visit friends in ICU or other areas of the hospital without unknowingly bringing a potentially fatal infection with you. The risks associated with vaccination are extremely low, and if you don't get vaccinated, they're much, much higher. 

Katie Marks writes for Networx.com.

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