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Why Are Measles Outbreaks Growing?

The current measles outbreaks can be traced to infections among international travelers. More than 700 cases in the country could re-establish the virus.

The spreading measles epidemic has left more than 700 people sick in the U.S. Young children have been hardest hit in outbreaks across the country, from New York State’s Rockland County to California’s Los Angeles County. Michigan, New Jersey, Georgia and Maryland also have seen large numbers of cases. In fact, this year the US has more cases of measles than it has had in 20 years.

Where in the World Are Measles Outbreaks Occurring?

Cases are being reported elsewhere in the world, especially in Brazil, India, Madagascar, the Philippines, Ukraine and Venezuela. Israel, France, Greece and Georgia have also seen outbreaks. That means international travelers are probably helping to spread the virus around the world. As a result, the CDC is encouraging Americans traveling overseas to bring their vaccinations up to date before they leave.

What Are the Symptoms of Measles?

Measles, also called rubeola, is caused by a virus that is highly contagious. It spreads through droplets from sneezes or coughs. Within ten days to two weeks of exposure, the patient notices a high fever, sore throat, runny nose, red, watery eyes, dry cough, headache and muscle pain. So far, it sounds a lot like the flu or a flu-like illness. However, two to three days later tiny white spots develop on reddened areas of the inner cheek. Doctors call them Koplik spots. In addition, there is the measles rash. It often starts on the chest, back and face, but the red spots frequently spread to other parts of the body.

Measles Complications:

Measles can be a serious infection at any age, but very young children may be especially susceptible to complications. In such youngsters, ear infections associated with measles can lead to permanent hearing impairment. The infection can also cause diarrhea in just under 10 percent of people who catch the virus. Some children (up to 5 percent) with measles come down with pneumonia as a consequence. Even more alarming, one child in 1,000 will develop swelling of the brain in reaction to the infection or the high fever. This can trigger seizures. Worst of all, measles can kill kids. About one or two children in every thousand with the infection die as a result.

What Is the Future of Measles?

In 2000 some public health experts declared the US to be free of measles. Technically, that may still be correct, because the definition refers to measles cases that could not be linked to an infection from outside the country. However, if the current measles outbreaks continue, it is likely that we will be facing more epidemics in the future.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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