NEW YORK (PIX11) – Some people think of the measles as just one of those things that kids used to pick up that kept them home from school for a few days, but it’s a disease-causing virus that can have life-altering effects or even be fatal if left untreated. That’s why New York City’s health department has issued an urgent warning about an outbreak that’s affected at least 16 people, and of those caused at least four to be hospitalized.
The disease, which leaves a red, or reddish brown rash spread widely over the body for days, was common in the U.S. until 2000. That’s when a nationwide, comprehensive vaccination program in place for years resulted in the measles being eradicated in this country.
Occasionally since then, there have been outbreaks in some communities. In this latest case, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, of the 16 people who have contracted the disease, 9 of them are children, and all 16 cases were in the northern Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights or Inwood, or in the south or central Bronx.
It’s a situation that medical experts describe as very serious. “Even in the United States, with modern technology,” said Dr. Nathan Litman, director of pediatric infectious disease at the Children’s Hospital of Montefiore, “one to three children [out] of every thousand who acquire measles die.”
Litman and his staff have encountered this latest measles outbreak firsthand. “We’ve had one child with measles admitted to the Children’s Hospital about two weeks ago,” he told PIX11 News in an interview on Friday.
The symptoms of the disease begin with fever, cough, runny nose and sore throat, but, according to the Centers for Disease Control, after two or three days, white spots start to appear in the mouth, followed by the red or reddish brown, widespread rash. After that, a serious fever that can spike above a 104 degrees Fahrenheit sets in.
“The consequences of measles are far, far worse than any adverse reaction related to the vaccine” for the virus, Dr. Litman said. He’s among the thousands of health care professionals citywide who are repeating the health department’s urging for people to get themselves and their children vaccinated.
Litman added that side effects of the condition, if left untreated, range from ear infection to brain swelling to worse. Worldwide, the disease kills 164,000 people every year, and it can cause premature births or miscarriages, according to the CDC.
Measles shots are typically administered to children as part of a measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, inoculation when a child turns 12 months old, and again near their 4th birthday.
However, in the case of this new outbreak, doctors urge people with already-vaccinated children over the age of 12 months but under the age of 4 who may have been exposed to measles, to get their second measles shot as soon as possible. It can be administered 28 days or more after the first vaccination.
Also, for infants 6 to 12 months, who are not old enough to receive a measles shot, a medical professional can administer a gamma globulin vaccine that can help fight and prevent the disease.
Doctors also advise adults who have even the slightest suspicion that they’ve been exposed to the virus to get a shot immediately. The need is particularly strong, according to medical experts, in the neighborhoods where the diagnosed measles cases have occurred, in Washington Heights, Inwood and the Bronx.
“Measles is a highly contagious disease,” Dr. Litman said. “Household members who are susceptilbe to measles and are exposed have an 80-90 percent chance of developing measles. The measles is not a benign disease. It is a serious illness, and it’s better to prevent it than to acquire wild measles.”
In other words, nobody can afford to contract the measles, which is spread through saliva droplets from infected patients. What everybody can afford is to get a shot. The city provides it for free or low cost. The Department of Health, in a statement to PIX11 News, said that anyone in need of a free measles shot can call 311 for information on how and where to get one.