MA public health official: 2019 could be 'another big year' for the measles

MA public health official: 2019 could be 'another big year' for the measles

BOSTON — The measles was declared eliminated in 2000. Yet in recent years there has been a surge in cases. 
Since Jan. 1, more than 260 cases have been reported across 15 states, including in neighboring New Hampshire and Connecticut.

Massachusetts has one of the highest measles vaccination rates in the nation and, so far, there have been no cases of measles reported in the Bay State. But, as 25 Investigates found, there are some areas of the state where vaccination rates are low and could be susceptible to an outbreak.

Anastasia Sotnic, a new mom, lives on Cape Cod, one of the areas with lower vaccination.
News of the measles spreading across the country has her concerned for her 10-month old baby boy, who is too young to get the vaccine.

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“If I keep my child at home, he might not get it. But once we just go to a coffee shop or anywhere in public or the library we could [be exposed] to something like that,” said the young mother who lives in Provincetown.

Anastasia’s fears are not entirely unfounded.

Measles is a virus that typically spreads through coughing and sneezing. It can lead to rash, fever, swelling of the brain and even death.

Children under age one, like Anastasia’s baby, are particularly vulnerable.

“Measles is so contagious,” says Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director of the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Science at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. “If a single person has the measles 90 percent of people they’re exposed to will develop it. We’re worried this could be another big year.”

Some 268 cases have been reported nationwide to date. Many of those occurred among non-vaccinated children.

Health experts recommend people get two doses of the MMR vaccine to protect against the measles, mumps and rubella, with the first dose at 12 months of age.

Massachusetts has among the highest MMR vaccination rates in the nation at 96%. But a few unvaccinated segments of the population may be putting some at risk, say public health officials.

“In every population there are pockets where the vaccination rate isn't high enough,” says Madoff.

The state requires children to be vaccinated to attend school. But there are exceptions. Children with medical conditions can be exempted with proper documentation, and parents can request exemptions for their kids for religious reasons. Obtaining a faith-based exemption requires only signing a form.

25 Investigates reviewed Department of Public Health Data and found religious exemptions outpaced medical ones.

Last year, among the more than 63,000 kindergartners in Massachusetts schools, 853 received exemptions.

For the 2017-2018 School Year, there were 166 Medical  Exemptions and 687 Religious Exemptions.

The greatest exemption rates were reported in Western Massachusetts, and the Cape and Islands. 
Franklin County had 5.3% and Cape Cod had 3.1%. Meanwhile, 12.9% of all kindergartners on Martha's Vineyard were exempted from one or more vaccinations.

Despite the state’s overall high vaccination rates, local public health officials worry that those pockets of under-immunized may be susceptible to an outbreak.

“When the vaccination rate in a community falls below a certain level they no longer have what we call herd immunity or community immunity that prevents the transmission of the virus, prevents an outbreak from happening,” says Madoff, who says that individuals who get the recommended two doses of the MMR vaccine have a greater than 90% protection rate.

Still, he advises that, despite the vaccine’s high efficacy, some immunized individuals may still have a small chance of contracting the virus if they come in contact with an infected individual.

“No vaccine is 100 percent effective but with measles vaccine it's highly effective and you’re very unlikely to get measles if you've had the vaccinem" Madoff said.

Madoff adds that the measles vaccine is not only effective, but also safe.

“For the overwhelming majority of people getting a vaccine is the right choice. It’s also much safer than not getting the vaccine," Madoff said.

The CDC recommends two doses of the vaccine. The first at approximately12 months of age and the second at around 4 years.

Despite her fears, Anastasia has no plans to isolate her baby. Instead, she says she will remain vigilant and take every necessary precaution to protect her baby from the virus until his next pediatric well-visit in a few weeks, when he is due to receive the MMR vaccine.

“I hope immunizing him I do something good for him which will protect him in the future," she said.