The fact that some parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children isn’t new, unfortunately, but it’s increasingly concerning. “In otherwise healthy children, there’s absolutely no reason not to immunize kids,” Dr. Tosi says.
“We saw rising cases of measles year after year before the pandemic happened,” Dr. Esper adds. “There has been a growing amount of vaccine hesitancy that we’ve been dealing with, and the pandemic shed light on that issue and perhaps augmented it for some.”
Dr. Tosi notes that some anti-vax thinking has been driven by a 1998 paper published in The Lancet that incorrectly linked autism to the MMR vaccine. The paper has since been retracted, but its impact remains: “That’s a bell that’s so hard to unring,” he says. “It was fraudulent, and virtually all the authors retracted their involvement in it, but that misinformation is still out there.”
Even parents who don’t necessarily seek out this type of misinformation can be affected by it, Dr. Esper says. “A lot of people hear chatter about the measles vaccine from family or on message boards and think where there’s smoke there must be fire,” he says. Then, they may choose not to vaccinate their children “because they hear it so much. That’s how vaccine hesitancy works.”
Also worth noting: Some children may have missed their MMR vaccines in recent years for other reasons. “There’s some concern that the COVID pandemic may have reduced childhood immunization because people were not seeking medical care for that sort of thing,” Dr. Tosi says.
Should you be worried about the outbreak potentially spreading?
Regardless of where you live, it’s crucial to make sure your children are up-to-date on their MMR vaccines. It can take up to three weeks for protection from the shot to kick in, so a child won’t be completely safe from measles overnight.
Among children who get measles, “1 out of 10 also gets an ear infection; 1 out of 20 children get pneumonia that can bring them into the hospital; and 1 out of 1,000 get a brain infection,” Dr. Esper explains. One out of five unvaccinated people who get measles will need to be hospitalized, and up to 3 out of every 1,000 children who get measles will die from respiratory or neurologic complications caused by the virus, per the CDC.
While the current outbreak is contained in Ohio right now, there’s no reason to believe it couldn’t spread to other regions in the country, given how transmissible it is, Dr. Esper says. Measles is particularly insidious because children can spread the virus to others for up to four days before showing any signs of illness. “The [virus] is extremely contagious, more contagious than COVID,” Dr. Esper stresses. “It’s one of the reasons why, when we see an outbreak like this, it takes months for it to run its course.”
Taking other tried-and-true precautions can also help stop the spread of measles. “Measles is a respiratory virus,” Dr. Esper says, so it can spread just like a cold or the flu. Washing your hands well and often and staying away from people who have recently been sick are important steps you can take to keep your family healthy.
If you live in Ohio, you should pay attention to messages from your local health authorities. They may recommend that the second dose of the MMR vaccine be given a little earlier than the four-year mark if the outbreak continues to escalate, Dr. Tosi says. And, while the MMR vaccine generally isn’t recommended for adults who don’t know whether they were immunized as a kid, Dr. Esper says that guidance could potentially shift if measles cases skyrocket.
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