The health concern: The measles, a contagious disease caused by a virus. It has many of the same symptoms as the flu -- fever, a cough, runny nose -- as well as a rash of tiny red spots. Measles can be serious, particularly for children younger than 5 and adults older than 20, and can lead to pneumonia or other complications. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from the disease. "Most people recover well, but a small number do very poorly and it can be a fatal disease," said Dr. Michael Parry, director of infectious disease at Stamford Hospital.
Why it's in the news: Though measles was for a long time considered largely eradicated due to vaccines, it's made something of a comeback recently. The CDC reports that between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28 of this year, 54 people in the United States have been reported as having the measles. Usually, only about 60 cases are reported in an entire year.
The resurgence has also hit close to home. At least two cases have been identified in Fairfield County and about 20 cases have been reported in the New York City area during the past several weeks. Some experts have said the New York victims might have been exposed to the virus in hospitals or doctors' offices.
Locally, doctors had other possible explanations for the measles renaissance. Parry said one possible factor is the aversion that some parents have to vaccinating their children. For years, some parents have worried that the vaccine that protects against measles is linked to autism in children. Experts have refuted those claims, notably in a 2004 report from the Institute of Medicine concluding there is no link between autism and the vaccine.
Still, Parry said, "The compulsion to be vaccinated has fallen off." And when the population isn't well-vaccinated, such illnesses as measles could pop back into existence, he said.
Dr. Toni Salvatore, medical director of Greenwich Hospital's pediatric center, agreed and took it a step further. Not only are some people less aggressive about vaccinating, she said, families are more inclined to travel than they used to be. And sometimes, they travel to countries where vaccination coverage isn't as thorough as it is in the United States. That increases the likelihood that children will be exposed to measles and other contagious illnesses, Salvatore said.
So, should you worry?: Not if you're vaccinated, experts said. The CDC recommends that children get the measles vaccine (which also protects against mumps and rubella) twice -- once at 12 to 15 months and once between 4 and 6 years (before entering school). "If your child is immunized, there's no need to worry about that child getting the measles," Salvatore said. But if you or your children aren't vaccinated, that's a different story. "It's extremely contagious," said Dr. Zane Saul, Bridgeport Hospital chief of infectious disease. "If you're non-immunized and you're exposed to someone with measles, there's a 90 percent chance you'll get it."
And, though the risk of death from the illness is low, doctors said measles isn't something to be dismissed. "It isn't like the common cold," Parry said. "People shouldn't take it lightly."
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