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Measles Outbreak Underscores Importance of Immunization

Thursday, February 05, 2015 | 07:06am

NASHVILLE  – Measles, a disease considered eradicated in the United States, is making headlines due to a growing outbreak linked to a California amusement park. Most of the people infected with measles in this outbreak were not vaccinated against the disease. While Tennessee does not yet have any reported measles cases in 2015 and no cases linked to this outbreak at this time, the Tennessee Department of Health is reminding everyone of the importance of routine vaccination against measles and other illnesses.

“Measles is a highly contagious, potentially deadly disease, but we have had great success in preventing it for decades with a safe, effective vaccine,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “Measles vaccine is among the immunizations required in Tennessee, and it’s important to make sure children get this vaccination not only for their own protection, but to help protect those such as young infants or people with severe medical conditions who cannot be immunized or are otherwise at high risk for serious complications and death from measles.

“While we can be proud of our relatively high rates of vaccination in Tennessee, even higher rates would offer greater protection from outbreaks and for vulnerable populations who can’t be effectively vaccinated,” Dreyzehner continued. “We assess immunization rates of children by their second birthday. The national target is a 90 percent immunization rate. In Tennessee in 2014, our rate was 93.3. This shows the vast majority of people here are protecting themselves and their vulnerable neighbors, but we could still do better.”

The measles vaccine, as part of the measles-mumps-rubella or “MMR” vaccine, is routinely given to children after their first birthday and again before Kindergarten. Two doses of MMR vaccine will protect almost all people against measles for a lifetime.

In 2014, the Tennessee Department of Health identified the first cases of measles in the state in three years. The four cases were in adults and were all linked to an initial patient with an uncertain immunization status who had traveled abroad. TDH and metro partner the Jackson-Madison County Regional Health Department responded and identified more than 100 people who were exposed to the initial measles patient. The combination of Tennessee’s high vaccination rates and thorough public health investigative work limited the impact of this outbreak and contained it to only three additional cases.

“Despite the reports some may find frightening about this new, multistate outbreak of measles, most younger, American-born adults received at least one vaccine against measles as children, and those born before 1957 are generally assumed to have had measles disease in childhood,” said State Epidemiologist Tim Jones, MD. “Adults planning to travel outside the U.S. and those who work in healthcare need to be certain they have received two doses of vaccine. It is also very important that children be vaccinated against measles as part of their routine medical care to continue to build and maintain immunity against this disease in our communities.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports there were more cases of measles in the United States in 2014 than any year in the past 20 years. The cases and outbreaks are linked to disease acquired internationally and spread in this country among people who are not immune.

“Routine immunization protects not only the people vaccinated, but the entire community by building what is often called ‘herd immunity,’” said Tennessee Immunization Program Director Kelly Moore, MD. “Those of us with immunity to an illness provide a ‘cocoon’ of protection for those who are vulnerable including infants and children who cannot be vaccinated because of cancer treatment or other serious health problems. Measles is so contagious that immunization rates must stay very high to keep up that protection. This is why it’s so important that everyone who can be vaccinated should be vaccinated to protect those whose health or age prevents them from being vaccinated.”

MMR vaccine is required to attend daycare, school and college in Tennessee, and immunization rates among Tennessee children are very high. In the 2013-2014 school year, 95 percent of Tennessee Kindergarten students in public and private schools had received all required immunizations, including two doses of MMR; just over one percent had a religious or medical exemption to immunization.

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that causes a high fever, cough, runny nose and conjunctivitis or “pinkeye”, followed by a rash on the face that spreads down the body. Measles can cause serious complications like pneumonia, and is sometimes fatal.

To learn more about measles, visit www.cdc.gov/measles/cases-outbreaks.html.

General information about vaccines is available online at www.cdc.gov/vaccines.

The mission of the Tennessee Department of Health is to protect, promote and improve the health and prosperity of people in Tennessee. TDH has facilities in all 95 counties and provides direct services for more than one in five Tennesseans annually as well as indirect services for everyone in the state, including emergency response to health threats, licensure of health professionals, regulation of health care facilities and inspection of food service establishments.  Learn more about TDH services and programs at http://health.state.tn.us/.

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