GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. — Michigan health officials are closely watching the outbreak of a virus many thought was long gone in the U.S.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the number of measles cases is up in parts the country.
“It’s probably one of the most contagious diseases that we know of,” explained Dr. Nirali Bora, medical director of Kent County.
Older generations of Americans know why measles is a public health concern. Until the early 1960s, nearly every child in America got measles by the time they were 15 years old, the CDC says. At that time, 3 million to 4 million people in the U.S. were infected every year by the highly contagious virus.
It’s also a very serious illness. An estimated 400 to 500 people died from measles in the years before the vaccine, with another 48,000 ending up in the hospital.
“Some of the more serious complications are pneumonia, or a brain infection called encephalitis. And those can lead to hospitalization, and they can also be fatal,” Bora warned.
The invention of the vaccine in the early 1960s eliminated measles, mumps and rubella to the point that it no longer had a constant presence in the nation by 2000.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says 29 of those cases are in Oakland County and one is in Wayne County. The patients are between a year old and 63 years old.
Since the beginning of the year, at least 387 cases of measles have been reported nationwide — the second highest number recorded by the CDC since 2000.
Health officials say the resurgence is the result of two factors: sick travelers and people opting out of the vaccine.
In the Detroit-area outbreak, it’s believed “patient zero” came from Israel and the virus spread through unvaccinated groups of people.
Something as simple as a trip to the store could cause the virus to spread among unvaccinated people.
“If someone has the disease and they’re in a room with a group of people who have not been vaccinated, 9 out of the 10 people in that room who are not vaccinated will get the disease,” explained Bora.
The MMR vaccine, which covers measles, mumps and rubella, is usually given to children in two doses: One at 12 months old to 15 months old, and the second when the child is 4 years old to 6 years old.
There are a variety of reason parents avoid getting their child vaccinated. Some people who are part of the so-called anti-vax movement worry about a possible connection between vaccinations and autism.
Health officials say there is no scientific proof thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative added to vaccines to prevent germ growth, leads to autism. Additionally, they say thimerosal was never in the MMR vaccine from the beginning.
Michigan health officials tracking the Detroit-area measles outbreak are also urging people to get the vaccine.
“If you were born before 1957, it’s thought you are already have natural immunity,” said Bora.
“If you’re not sure (if you’re protected), talk to your doctor. It doesn’t hurt to get another MMR vaccination if you’re an adult,” she added.