Chicago pediatrician: 'Measles keeps me up at night'

Written by: Marielle Fricchione

Protecting your family from measles

My 4-year-old and I had a date with our pediatrician yesterday. Though kids can get their second MMR vaccine any time between 4 and 6 years old, he received his second MMR vaccine exactly a week after his 4th birthday. After the visit, we got cinnamon rolls (and a large coffee for me) and I told him how proud and excited I was that he was protected against measles and a bunch of other nasty diseases much better now. 

It sounds pretty cheesy, but I said this out loud to him and I woke up this morning breathing a sigh of relief. As many of you have heard, there have been multiple outbreaks of measles in the U.S. so far this year and we are up to 662 cases in 22 states as of April 19, 2019. We are on pace to exceed the 2014 record for highest number of cases since measles “elimination” in 2000. Illinois has had some of these cases. I know this not only because I am a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist, but also because I do disease surveillance for measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases at the Chicago Department of Public Health. 

Measles keeps me up at night, when my two kids are not waking up with wet beds or nightmares. Many children are suffering in our country and will continue to suffer if these outbreaks spread. Even after recovery from measles, children are more likely to get bacterial infections for a certain period of time and there is a rare complication of delayed swelling of the brain lining (encephalitis) that can occur ten years or more after infection. Measles spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes and it’s so contagious that if one person has it, up to 9 of 10 people around them will also become infected if they are not protected. Measles starts with a fever that can get very high, cough, runny nose, red eyes, and a rash of tiny, red spots that start at the head and spread to the rest of the body. The virus can cause serious health complications, such as pneumonia or encephalitis, and even death.  

Though all this sounds scary, we should feel good that most parents in Chicago and Illinois vaccinate their families. We all need to do our part to protect children under the age of 12 months or those with weakened immune systems who may not be able to receive the vaccine. They could be your neighbor, classmate or friend and you may not even know it. Travelers returning to Chicago from areas both internationally and within the United States experiencing ongoing measles outbreaks may pose a risk of spread of the illness within the city. The majority of measles cases in the U.S. currently are in New York City and New York state, which are primarily among unvaccinated people in Orthodox Jewish communities and associated with travelers who brought measles back from Israel. With the current Passover holiday that ends the evening of Saturday, April 27, there may be more opportunities for measles to spread. 

The best way to protect against measles is to get the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine on time. We recommend that most children get the first dose of the MMR vaccine at the age of 12 months and a second dose after the 4th birthday. If you are not sure if they have had the vaccine or if they had a prior measles infection, talk to your doctor.  

If you travel internationally, anyone in your family older than 6 months should receive the MMR vaccine. Talk with your health care provider about protecting your baby at least 4 weeks prior to departure. A lot of my friends and colleagues ask me if they should bring their newborns and infants on planes to some of these U.S. locations with measles outbreaks. In general, infants who are too young to be vaccinated should avoid contact with sick people or situations where they may be exposed to sick people. Adults who are traveling internationally may need one or two doses of MMR vaccine depending on their vaccination history.

Check out the following links for more information:

Learn more about measles and prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/features/measles/

Measles fact sheet: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/diseases/child/measles-basics-color.pdf

Dr. Marielle Fricchione is a Chicago pediatrician who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases.

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Posted on April 25, 2019 at 10:06 AM