About Amy Umble:
Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star

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Decision not to vaccinate can affect others

Measles produces a telltale rash that appears after about three days.

It’s a personal decision when parents decide not to vaccinate their children, or when an adult decides not to be vaccinated. Yet that decision also has public consequences. In fact, it can put innocents at risk.

I mention this after working on the story about measles, here, that appeared in today’s paper. The story includes details about the cluster of measles cases that surfaced in Charlottesville last month. That outbreak started when a foreign-born U.S. resident traveled overseas and returned home with measles. This person infected three other people. Neither the original person nor the three other people were vaccinated against measles.

Two of the three people who became infected by the original person did not have face-to-face contact with her. As Laura Ann Nicolai, epidemiologist for the Virginia Department of Health, pointed out, you don’t need direct contact with an infected person to get measles. The virus can become airborne and linger in the air for up to two hours.

I don’t know all the details about what happened in Charlottesville, but I can imagine a scenario where an infected person puts everyone around him at risk, including children. Let’s say the infected person, not yet showing signs of the disease, eats lunch at a McDonald’s. He leaves the restaurant, to be followed a few minutes later by a mother and 11-month-old-child. The child is not vaccinated, not by the mother’s choice, but because the first measles vaccination is usually not given to children until they are 12 months old.

So the infant inhales the virus and becomes sick. Really sick. Most people who get measles need medical help, Nicolai said, because they feel so bad.

This scenario is imagined, but the risks are real. We are watching  the return of a disease that had been eliminated in this country. And for no good reason. The measles vaccination is safe and effective, said Dr. Brooke Rossheim, director of the Rappahannock Area Health District. It does not cause autism. Its benefits far outweigh any risks.

(An earlier blog post on this topic can be found here.)