Measles on the rise

Measles cases have been popping up around California in an outbreak linked to visits to Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure theme parks during the winter 2014 holiday.

Cindy Salyer of Hanahan had measles when she was a senior at Kentucky’s Berea College in the spring of 1990, largely because as a young child, she was treated for a blood disease with chemotherapy and could not get vaccinated.

“It (having the measles) is the sickest I can remember, ever,” says Salyer, who was quarantined in her dorm room for a week after diagnosis.

“I remember being very cold. I coughed so much that when I quit, my suite mates got concerned. ...I had blisters in my mouth and red bumps behind my ears. A sunburn-like rash started on my head and traveled to my feet.”

Cheryl Moniz of Summerville had measles when she was four in the early 1960s and remembers being bathed in tepid water to relieve her high fever. To this day, she lives with the after-effects of the measles.

“My hearing has been impaired since I was a young child,” says Moniz, who started wearing hearing aids in her late 20s. “I lost most of the higher frequencies and some middle frequencies. Without hearing aids, I can’t hear birds or microwave beeps.”

Rebeccah Williams Connelly of Charleston never had the measles but remembers the scramble it created when she was a student at the former St. Andrew’s High School in West Ashley in March 1992. The outbreak spread to James Island Middle and High schools in April. In all, two dozen students were infected.

“We (students) all just went to the gym and got a shot,” recalls Connelly. “As a teenager, I thought it was funny and I don’t think my parents were too terribly worked up.”

But with measles outbreaks re-emerging in the national spotlight in recent weeks, Salyer, Moniz and Connelly can vouch for the importance of getting the vaccination for measles, which also includes protections for the mumps and rubella.

With news of the measles outbreaks California and Arizona, which originated from Disneyland in Orange County, Calif., before Christmas, and other nearby states in past weeks, a state health official says South Carolinians should not dismiss it as problem limited to the West Coast.

“We have to remember that sharing a geographic border does not eliminate the possibility of air travel,” says Dr. Linda Bell, epidemiologist with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. “We are essentially connected to California and every other state, not to mention those international connections. There are implications from anywhere.”

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the highly contagious virus had been confirmed in 102 people from 14 states from Jan. 1 to Jan. 30 and issued an official health advisory to notify public health departments, hospitals and clinics and provide guidance to health care providers. As of Monday, no cases have been reported in the Palmetto State.

January follows a troubling 2014, which witnessed a spike in measles in the United States. The CDC reported 644 cases, 89 percent were considered part of 23 outbreaks.

Despite the fact the CDC announced measles was “eliminated” in 2000, Bell says the recent outbreak is “no surprise to us in public health” and that more cases can be expected.

“The things we know about measles being one of the most highly transmissible diseases is why we strongly encourage high vaccine coverage rates, even when there is not endemic transmission of diseases going on,” says Bell.

The implications of having unvaccinated people in the population, she adds, is that the virus will seek out susceptible people in the environment where measles have been present.

As health officials work to halt the outbreak, it has not only given them a valuable platform to re-assert the need for vaccinations but also caused some anger by parents for those who seek exemptions from it for reasons other than health.

In South Carolina, exemptions are allowed for medical and religious reasons. Only Mississippi and West Virginia don’t allow exemptions based on religion.

Public health officials can track those with exemptions among those who enroll their children in schools, says Bell, and require any to be excluded from school for 21 days (the maximum incubation period for the virus) if a measles case appears.

“The worry is the children who are home-schooled. We don’t have information about them, but they are individuals who still share our public places with.”

Jenny McCarthy, the former Playboy playmate and MTV star often credited with popularizing the anti-vaccine movement after blaming her child’s autism on vaccines, has been drawing a new round of heat with the measles outbreak.

In recent years, she has tried to distance herself from the link as backlash to “anti-vaxxer” movement returns with every outbreak.

Dr. Sandra Fowler, director of the pediatric infectious diseases division at the Medical University of South Carolina, says there are more cases of measles and whooping cough because of “people like her (McCarthy).”

The outbreak is an opportunity, Fowler adds, to add increased vigilance against diseases that can be prevented, or highly contained, by vaccination.

“We are victims of our own success because these diseases were pretty much eliminated,” says Fowler, who is chairwoman of the Vaccine Advocacy Committee of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society.

“The CDC declared measles eliminated from United States in 2000, but there will always be introductions where a traveler in an area with low rates of immunizations comes in and then it stops,” she says.

Protecting the population from infectious diseases, Fowler says, requires a high level of immunity.

“For measles, it requires at least 95 percent or higher immunity in the population to keep it from spreading rapidly. In communities with lots of exemptions, a disease like this can spread like wildfire. For most people, (a measles infection) is a miserable week of illness where they have rash, fever and eye pain.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.