Wisconsin hasn’t had a measles case reported yet this year. But there have been more than 800 confirmed cases in the U.S. since Jan. 1, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the numbers are rising. With summer right around the corner, families traveling for vacation have an increased risk of becoming infected.
Stephanie Schauer is the immunization program manager at the Wisconsin Department of Public Health. She says as families are considering travel plans for summer vacation, it's especially important to make sure everyone is up to date on vaccinations.
"The current outbreak has shown that many of these have started with unvaccinated individuals traveling overseas, contracting the illness, and then coming home and becoming ill and it spreading to others in their communities," says Schauer.
Measles Is Highly Contagious
According to the CDC, measles is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.
So, why is measles so contagious? Oddly enough, it has to do with the weight of the measles virus, compared to most bacterial diseases.
"Bacteria that are transmitted also through cough are heavy. They fall on the ground within a few feet of a person that is infectious. With measles, the type of droplet that they are going to be a part of is very very tiny. They don't weigh that much so they can just float in the air," explains Dr. Silvia Munoz-Price, an enterprise epidemiologist with Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin.
The measles virus can live for up to two hours in an airspace where an infected person has coughed or sneezed, according to the CDC.
In the city of Milwaukee, the rate of immunization for measles hovers the low 80s. That's higher than the statewide vaccination rate which was 72% last year. Schools in Wisconsin require children to be vaccinated for measles. However, parents can turn in a waiver opting out.
The state health department hopes to increase the number of immunizations in its public service campaign by targeting pregnant women and parents of newborns to 3-year-olds.
But Schauer, the immunization program manager, notes that adults also can benefit from vaccination — and it's not too late to get one. Like adults who got an earlier form of the measles vaccine that is no longer used.
"This was during the 1960s. Specifically from the 1963 to 1968, and it was administered to less than 5% of the individuals. But the recommendation is to go ahead and revaccinate if you had a vaccine during that time and you don’t know what type you had. And you haven’t had another dose since," says Shauer.
The Wisconsin Health Department says it will measure the success of its campaign if it sees the vaccination rates increase, especially in areas with lower vaccination rates.