Measles concerns abated with vaccinations

Most Americans have heard of measles, but until about 20 years ago, few doctors had ever seen symptoms of it.

Dr. Charles Devine III, health director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, said he remembers the first case he ever saw two decades ago.

“No one working in the emergency room at the time had ever seen a case,” he said. “At the time you just did not see it.”

Even now, he said many doctors analyze symptoms of measles using photos of other patients or descriptions of its telltale rash.

“The key difference is 10 and 20 years ago you weren’t looking for it because you never saw it,” Devine said.

Following reports of measles reports in New York and southern California, Devine assured there aren’t any confirmed measles cases in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

“We had a case where we thought it might be, some years ago, but it turned out not to be,” he said.

But measles is enough of a concern that he recommended vaccinations for as many people as possible.

Measles is highly contagious and spreads just by breathing the same air that an infected person occupied within a two-hour period.

It’s one of the easiest diseases to transmit, Devine said, and it can be introduced usually from overseas very easily.

“And that’s probably how it ended up in Disney Land too, was one of the foreign visitors,” Devine said, explaining the disease traveled to New York from California.

He cautions those with unvaccinated children from visiting places where greater numbers of foreigners might travel.

“It’s certainly safe to go to a large park like Disney World if you’ve been immunized,” Devine said.

Symptoms start out looking like a cold with a fever and increase to include swollen lymph nodes in the neck and a bad rash. Because it starts like a cold would, it’s very possible to be contagious before being diagnosed with measles.

“There really is no treatment for it, and it is potentially dangerous,” Devine said. “About one out of 20 children with measles gets pneumonia.”

One in 1,000 children with measles will develop inflammation and swelling of the brain, leading to encephalitis, which can cause brain damage or death.

Pneumonia is treatable, though he said it’s the most common cause of death in those who have measles.

“Part of the problem is this is very dangerous to the very young, and the very young cannot be immunized,” he said. “So only by having everyone around the infected [person] protected can we protect the infant.”

A good buffer range of immunized persons keeping the virus contained is between 93 and 95 percent of a population.

The Lord Fairfax Health District, which covers Winchester and the counties of Frederick, Clarke, Page, Warren and Shenandoah, is greater than 90 percent immunized against measles, a percentage he called adequate.

“I’m fairly satisfied with what we’re seeing,” he said.

“There are some places where the rate is lower because of people being afraid to vaccinate,” he said. They might fear the onset of would-be vaccine-related conditions, like autism, he explained. “That, of course, is incorrect.”

A California doctor recently made news by refusing to treat patients who aren’t immunized, a decision Devine doesn’t share.

“Personally, speaking as myself, … I think that’s probably a bad idea, but I certainly understand his thinking and rationale,” Devine said. The more children he sees that aren’t immunized, he said, the more likely he’ll see another case of measles.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com