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May 1, 2019

Measles in South Carolina?

Last August, the first measles case in South Carolina in more than 20 years was confirmed by the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC). That case, in Georgetown County, was followed by a half-dozen confirmed cases in Spartanburg County.

Measles doesn’t boast the kind of rapidly grave dangers of Ebola or threaten unborn children like the Zika virus, but it’s still nothing to take lightly. Around one out of every 1,000 people who contract it will die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while roughly one in four will require hospitalization. One in 10 children with measles will develop ear infections, which can lead to permanent hearing loss, and an additional one in 1,000 will develop swelling of the brain, known as encephalitis. Common symptoms of measles include skin rashes, fever, cough and congestion.

What makes measles most concerning for public health officials though, is how contagious it is. Born of the rubeola virus, measles can spread rapidly through the air, and infected individuals can spread the disease for up to four days before symptoms present.

However, even as the nationwide resurgence of the disease following its official eradication in 2000 continues unabated, South Carolina has thus far been spared a true outbreak like those that has plagued other states. But according to a recent story in The Post & Courier, experts believe that possibility still lingers.

According to the paper, medical professionals agree that vaccinations are the only way to prevent this kind of contagious disease from spreading. And, increasingly, parents in South Carolina are opting out, with the number of students seeking exemptions for religious reasons increasing by nearly 20,000 from 2014 to 2018. A rise of such exemptions also prefaced the big outbreaks in California and Washington. It’s worth noting that Spartanburg County, where last year’s outbreak occurred, had the highest percentage of religious exemptions during the 2017-18 school year in the state.

Even having a small percentage of unvaccinated children can have an impact on the resurgence of a virus because of what’s known as herd immunity, which describes the portion of a population which needs to be immune to protect those who aren’t. This number depends on how the disease is transmitted. In the case of measles, which spreads easily, 93% to 95% of a population needs to be immune to prevent a single case of measles from spreading.

South Carolina’s current vaccination rates sits at just over 90%.

The CDC currently the standard two-dose vaccination process. Typically, the first dose of the vaccine is administered at 12 months, making young infants especially vulnerable. Given the recent resurgence of the virus, the CDC now suggests infants 6-11 months be vaccinated if traveling to countries with recent outbreaks. They also recommend that adults who received their doses between 1957 and 1967 be revaccinated, as early vaccines were less effective than the vaccine available after 1967. Adults born before 1957 are assumed to have contracted the disease as a child and thus have natural immunity. Women who are considering getting pregnant should also check on their vaccination status, according to the CDC.

For more information, visit the CDC’s website on the outbreak here.