The New York City Department of Health announced that it's investigating a measles outbreak in Manhattan and the Bronx. As of Friday, 16 cases had been confirmed, 7 of them adults and 9 children. Four people have been hospitalized as a result of the highly contagious viral infection, which causes symptoms including a blotchy rash, fever, cough, and runny nose. That's on the heels of the announcement last month that a UC-Berkeley student might have exposed others in the Bay Area to measles (there have been at least 15 cases confirmed in California this year), not to mention outbreaks last year in Newark, Texas, and Brooklyn.
All this for a disease that had been declared "eliminated" in the United States between 2000 and 2011—meaning it wasn't continuously transmitted—according to an article published in December in JAMA Pediatrics. But the virus is making a comeback: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 175 cases of measles reported in the U.S. in 2013, almost triple the usual number of 60. Which is scary news since measles can lead to complications like pneumonia, dangerous brain inflammation known as encephalitis, and miscarriage. The CDC believes that the spike is the result of unvaccinated people getting infected overseas, where measles is more common, and bringing it back to their communities.
This latest news hits home for me—literally. I live in one of the neighborhoods affected by the current NYC outbreak. I'm also a mother of two young children, and serious complications from measles are more common in children under 5. So I can't deny that I panicked a little when the news popped up in my Facebook feed.
However, this outbreak reinforces for me—both as a parent and a health journalist—the importance of vaccination. According to news reports, four of the infected children in New York were too young to have been vaccinated, and the parents of two other children opted not to have their children vaccinated. (The CDC recommends that children get one dose of the MMR [measles, mumps, rubella] or MMRV [measles, mumps, rubella, varicella] vaccine at 12 to 15 months, and a second dose at 4 to 6 years.) Several of the adults who were infected could not confirm that they had been vaccinated. There are many myths and fears about vaccines out there, but the fact remains that most of the people who get this disease are unvaccinated. By vaccinating, you're protecting not only your own family, but people in your community who are too young to get the shot (those babies!) or who can't be vaccinated for health reasons.
I'm glad that both of my children have been vaccinated on schedule. My older child is school-aged and is fully vaccinated against measles. My younger child is a toddler and has received one of the two doses. Though that single dose of MMRV may have given him enough protection against this outbreak, his pediatrician is recommending (in accordance with the NYC Department of Health) that all local patients get the second dose immediately. He's getting it today—we're not taking any chances.
Jeannie Kim is the Executive Deputy Editor of Health magazine.