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'It's still out there': How to protect yourself in case of a measles outbreak

Infant gets an MMR vaccine
Damian Dovarganes
In this Jan. 29, 2015, file photo, pediatrician Charles Goodman vaccinates 1-year-old Cameron Fierro with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, or MMR vaccine, at his practice in Northridge, Calif.

The measles has cropped up in South Florida, bringing the respiratory infection front of mind for parents and teachers.

The Broward County school district is grappling with a measles outbreak that originated at Manatee Bay Elementary in Weston, where several cases were confirmed.

School leaders have jumped into action. Since the first case was reported on Feb. 16, the district has conducted a deep cleaning of the school premises, including school buses, and also replaced its air filters.

The district said it will accomodate Manatee Bay Elementary parents who are concerned about sending their kids back to the classroom and want to keep them at home.

"We are in the process of developing how to ensure there is continuous learning for families who exercise this option," said BCPS Superintendent Peter Licata. "This will not be virtual learning, but will offer a bridge during the 21 day period."

READ MORE: 10-year low for kindergarten students as school immunizations slide in Florida

Licata said that 33 of 1,067 Manatee Bay students — roughly 3% — have not received the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. But across Florida, the kindergarten unvaccinated rate is about 10% — above the national average, which creates an elevated risk.

"That means we're more vulnerable to outbreaks of preventable diseases, and it's a concern," said Dr. Lisa Gwynn, a pediatrician at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

She said measles brings a potential for long-term health complications including pneumonia, deafness and a condition in the brain called encephalitis. It can also be deadly.

"This needs to be on the minds of all parents and you want to do everything you can to protect your child, right? If it's something preventable, it should be a no brainer really," she added.

Because measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, its reemergence has raised common questions about the virus. Below, we break down how the infection spreads, what symptoms develop and ways to keep you, your children and the greater community safe.

How do I know if me or my child has measles? 

People with the measles initially experience flu-like symptoms, which include a fever, runny nose and cough. But conjunctivitis (red eyes), a distinctive rash and tiny white ulcers inside the mouth called Koplik spots are characteristic to measles.

"So parents may think, 'oh, this is just a typical viral illness,' but in three to five days, as those symptoms evolve, that's when this unusual rash appears," she said.

Gwynn said there are lab tests to see if you have the measles virus, but they are not very common. There are also ways to check your immune status by getting certain blood tests.

How does measles spread?

The measles is highly contagious. Gwynn told WLRN that one person with the measles could infect up to 18 people who are not immunized against the virus.

As is typical of respiratory diseases, the virus spreads through coughing or air droplets. The virus can also linger on surfaces. Individuals with the measles can be infectious even before symptoms begin to show.

"That's one of the reasons why the rapid spread can take place because it's a long process to be able to diagnose measles," Gwynn said. "By the time you realize that a child has [it] — or an adult for that matter … It's often too late. The spread has already taken place."

How is it treated?

The most effective way to combat the spread of measles is through the MMR vaccine. The earlier, the better, health experts said. Pediatricians can start vaccinating infants as early as 12 to 15 months of age.

In an interview with WLRN, CVS Pharmacist Victoria Mottola said staying up to date with the vaccine was crucial to preventing the disease.

“If you have one dose of the vaccine, you're 93% protected. If you get two doses, as you're supposed to since it's a two dose series, then you're 97% protected. The chances that you will get measles then is less than 3%,” said Mottola.

Side effects of the vaccine include a possible fever, a mild rash and temporary pain in the injection site, but the majority of people who take the vaccine experience no serious side effects.

Pictured are vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella. New Zealand officials sent 3,000 doses of the vaccine to Samoa in the face of a measles epidemic.
Seth Wenig

Mottola cited decreasing vaccination rates as the cause for the recent resurgence.

“We're putting other children at risk, possibly those that are not vaccinated within the same class or within the same school,” said Mottola.

The MMR vaccine is a required vaccine in order for students to enroll in schools, however, school districts do offer exemptions for religious reasons.

Otherwise, there is no silver bullet to cure measles — it has to run its course. That could take as long as two weeks. Gwynn said a student shouldn't go back to school until the rash is completely gone.

"It's not like we have something like Tamiflu for the flu or Paxlovid for Covid," Gwynn said. "We don't have that for measles. So that's why the measles vaccine was just a game changer for healthcare preventive medicine in pediatrics."

Every state also has a registry of immunization information, so you can request your vaccination records. School districts also track vaccinations, although Gwynn is quick to add that it may not be as reliable as state records.

Where can you get the MMR vaccine?

The MMR vaccine is available for adults at any retail pharmacy such as CVS and Walgreens. Health insurance generally covers the cost of vaccinations. Those who are uninsured can visit their respective county's department of health and seek out free community outreach programs like the University of Miami Pediatric Mobile Clinic. Children can also get free immunizations under a federal program called Vaccines for Children (VFC).

How should parents decide if they send their children to a school or class with a known outbreak?

While the choice to send a child to a school with a known outbreak will ultimately rest with parents, Mottola says a child’s vaccination status should be a deciding factor.

Children who are vaccinated will largely be protected at schools, while children who are not vaccinated are the most at risk.

“If, for some reason, the child is not vaccinated, there is a very high chance — 90% or above — that they will also contract measles,” said Mottola.

Gwynn adds that there are lessons learned from dealing with COVID.

"As long as your child is vaccinated and you know, a deep cleaning has been completed, there should be no concerns about returning to school."

Alyssa Ramos is the multimedia producer for Morning Edition for WLRN. She produces regional stories for newscasts and manages digital content on WLRN.
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