The current measles outbreak, which began in late December in seven people who visited Disneyland in southern California, now totals at least 42 confirmed cases and includes three other states — Washington, Colorado and Utah, as well as Mexico. Officials have traced the outbreak to an unvaccinated California woman who apparently spread the virus after spending time at the theme park and airports.

Locations like these —crowded places with people standing shoulder to shoulder on line for extended periods — can be potential routes for the spread of measles, a very serious and potentially deadly virus that is highly contagious for people who are unvaccinated. These people have a more than 90 percent chance of contracting measles after being in close proximity to someone with the virus, which spreads through droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. Measles can also live on hard surfaces for up to two hours.

In a typical year there are a little more 200 cases of measles, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in 2014, 644 cases of measles were reported — one of the highest tallies since 2000. This is the same year measles was declared eradicated,meaning the disease no longer circulated in the U.S., though it was still brought into the country from the outside its borders.

There is no treatment for the measles virus beyond supportive care (including oral and intravenous fluids to treat dehydration) and respiratory support (including oxygen and mechanical ventilation to support breathing). ‎Antibiotics can be used to treat secondary infections, including pneumonia or ear infections, but they won’t fight the virus itself.

Measles is a dangerous disease for adults as well as children, but children are more susceptible to serious complications, says Ambreen Khalil, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Staten Island University Hospital. These include brain-damaging encephalitis and deafness.

Measles outbreak was bound to happen

In some ways, the measles outbreak that occurred at Disneyland is not unexpected. Factor in the crowded conditions at a theme park — where people from many parts of the U.S. and world come together — and the poor rates of vaccination that southern California has seen over the last several years, and the results, while alarming, are not surprising.

In fact, southern California has had such poor rates of vaccination for school age children that they approach the abysmal rates seen in some parts of Africa.

The public needs to understand just how dangerous measles can be. Before the vaccine was developed, 3 to 4 million cases of measles occurred annually, with up to 500 deaths. The bottom line is that children or adults shouldn't have to die from the measles in the U.S.

The most important way to approach this recent outbreak from a public health standpoint is to promote widespread vaccination — and this has to include dispelling myths including unfounded beliefs surrounding the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.

Although the MMR vaccine is reported to be 99 percent effective, an anti-vaccination movement in the U.S. in the past decade claimed that the vaccine led to the development of autism. While this has been disproven by thorough scientific review, many experts are concerned that the increasing number of measles cases is the result of this anti-vaccination campaign.

Parents need to understand how important it is to protect their children from measles. The MMR vaccine, administered at 12 months and again at age 4 to 6, protects against mumps as well as rubella and measles. Parents need to be aware that there are no antiviral medications available for the viruses that cause these diseases.

By achieving a high number of vaccinated children we can ensure herd immunity to help reduce any spread in the U.S. Herd immunity occurs when enough people in a community achieve vaccination so as to reduce spread of the disease.

The world can be quite a small place as we travel, reminding us again that any disease is potentially a plane or amusement park ride away.

Dr. Robert Glatter is an attending physician in the department of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital and a spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians.

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