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Measles a Risk for the Unvaccinated

November 20, 2018

LOWELL -- One local child contracting measles is alarming enough.

Now another area individual, with no known link to the child, getting diagnosed with the highly-contagious disease makes it a downright disconcerting trend.

So why is this happening in the Lowell area?

Infectious-disease experts say that a rising number of parents failing to vaccinate their children -- for vaccine-preventable viruses, such as measles -- are putting their kids at risk.

The “great myth” that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is tied to autism keeps getting perpetuated, says Valerie King, a clinical associate professor in UMass Lowell’s Solomont School of Nursing who coordinates UMass Lowell’s graduate nurse practitioner program.

There is zero scientific evidence that the vaccine is tied to autism, King stressed. But some celebrities have latched on to the myth, causing some parents to steer clear of vaccinating their children.

Measles, a highly-contagious respiratory infection, gets imported to America from time-to-time when an individual hasn’t been immunized.

“The more we can immunize people, the better we can prevent outbreaks in the community,” said King, who also works as a nurse practitioner in family practice. “It’s scary. It is scary.”

Her sister, born in 1955, lost 25 percent of her hearing as a side-effect of measles.

“A lot of us growing up had viral infections, but we’ve done so much better with vaccines,” she said. “The public health community has done a better job immunizing people.”

Nearly 95 percent of toddlers aged 19 to 35 months in Massachusetts are immunized, according to 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The nationwide average is around 91 percent.

According to the Mayo Clinic website, due to high vaccination rates, measles has not been widespread recently in the U.S., with about 60 cases of measles reported annually from 2000 to 2010. The number jumped to 205 in recent years.

The people who are not getting their children immunized are a major problem, said Paul Duprex, a molecular virologist at Boston University. He has studied measles for more than 20 years.

Duprex pointed to a measles outbreak in Disneyland a few years ago, as well as in Minnesota last year.

“If people are not vaccinated, this is what happens,” he said.

Measles is no longer endemic in America, but there are “importations” from foreign countries -- causing the disease to pop up here, Duprex said.

A child who had recently traveled internationally was diagnosed with measles on Nov. 8 at Lowell Community Health Center. Then a second case of measles was confirmed at the center on Thursday. The two cases are not connected, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Monday morning, the state reported zero additional confirmed cases in the area, and that “it’s impossible to predict” if there will be more cases, according to a spokesperson.

The individual diagnosed on Thursday was present at a number of area locations, which would have exposed other people to measles. Those locations include: T.J. Maxx, 288 Chelmsford St., Chelmsford, on Nov. 11; Lowell Community Health Center, 161 Jackson St., Lowell, on Nov. 15; and Walmart, 333 Main St., Tewksbury, on Nov. 15.

“To the best of our knowledge, there was no overlap of the two patients at our center,” said Randi Berkowitz, chief medical officer at the health center.

She called the measles cases “very unique.”

“We have policies and procedures to respond to any sort of urgent situations,” Berkowitz said. “We have honed our operational plans to be able to respond to any further cases.”

The first patient on Nov. 8 was immediately isolated, so areas of exposure were limited to the health center’s pharmacy, main lobby, pediatrics department and lab.

Following the diagnosis, more than 350 people responded to requests from the health center to determine whether their measles immunity was current or whether they should come in for testing and immunization.

Symptoms show between 10 days to two weeks after exposure. Symptoms may resemble a cold and a rash, which typically begins on the head and moves downward.

Measles may be contagious from a person up to four days before the rash appears and four days after the rash appears.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.

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