A Message from the Health Director:  Why Vaccines are Important

Health Director Pamela Walker explains the importance of vaccines, in light of recent measles cases in the U.S.

February 3, 2015 | 3 min reading time
Vaccines against devastating childhood diseases have been instrumental in improving our quality of life and extending our life expectancy by as much as 20 years over the past century. Diseases that kill and cripple, like smallpox and polio, have been eliminated from North America. However, the recent outbreak of measles associated with visitors to Disney Land reminds us that childhood diseases are waiting for an opportunity to re-emerge and we must remain vigilant. Last year, the U.S. saw a record 644 measles infections in 27 states after virtually eliminating the disease in 2000. 

Reported cases of measles in the U.S. fell from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands per year after the vaccine was introduced in 1963. By the year 2000 measles had decreased to less than a hundred. Many of us in America have never seen a case of measles and we don’t remember the heartbreak and fear that a measles outbreak can cause for families who lose a child to this deadly disease. Still today outside of our country 300 people die every day from measles and they are mostly children. People at highest risk are those who are unvaccinated, pregnant women, infants under 6 months old and those with weakened immune systems. 

Measles spreads very quickly and for every person infected it can spread to as many as 18 others. The disease can cause long term health effects like brain damage or even death, especially in infants. In fact 1 in 5000 people infected with measles will die from it. According to one estimate if you are unvaccinated you are 35,000 times more likely to die from measles than you are two win a Powerball. 

Newborns up to age two are particularly at risk because they have not had the full course of measles vaccine. People who have compromised immune systems are at risk. However, those most at risk are children whose parents choose not to be vaccinated before becoming pregnant or who choose not to vaccinate their children at all. There are already 58 cases associated with the Disneyland outbreak in California alone. Mexico and six other states have cases with a direct connection to Disneyland. The majority of the cases are among the unvaccinated. 

CDC warns us that: the majority of the people who get measles are unvaccinated; measles is still common in many parts of the world including some countries in Europe, Asia, the Pacific and Africa; travelers with measles continue to bring the disease into the U.S.; and measles can spread when it reaches a community in the U.S. where groups of people are unvaccinated. 

The following are the most common symptoms of measles: a high temperature, sore eyes (conjunctivitis), and a runny nose usually occur first; small white spots usually develop inside the mouth a day or so later; a harsh dry cough is usual; and not eating, tiredness and aches and pains are usual. 

If you are unsure of your measles vaccine status you will need to check with your health care provider. There is no centralized system of vaccine status among all providers in the U.S. so your local health department will not have these records. If you have reason to believe you might have been exposed as a result of the current outbreak or you have symptoms contact your health care provider. Unless it is an emergency CDC is recommending that you do so by phone in order to minimize the risk of exposure to others in the provider’s office. CDC also recommends that health care providers treating patients with fever and a rash consider measles and ask patients about travel to international destinations and domestic venues popular with international visitors. 

The more people that get vaccinated the less likely it is that there will be an outbreak here because diseases cannot get a foothold. It’s called herd immunity. It is up to all of us to not only protect ourselves and our children by getting vaccinated but to protect newborns, ill persons or those few people whose vaccinations may not be effective. Please get vaccinated in accordance with your provider and CDC recommendations.

(Originally published by The Whirl, 2015)
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    Division of Health
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