The St. Louis Department of Health is urging people to receive a measles shot before the busy summer travel season begins.
The U.S. largely eradicated measles decades ago thanks to effective immunizations, but the disease has had a resurgence of recent years as more people choose to not vaccinate their children.
Many of the outbreaks nationwide this year have occurred after people have traveled to countries where the disease is more common and spread it to under-vaccinated communities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Measles is considered to be one of the most infectious communicable diseases,” St. Louis Health Director Fred Echols said. “One case typically leads to an addition of 12 to 18 cases, and we are always mindful of the impact one case can have on a community.”
Measles is so contagious that it can live in the air more than two hours after an infected person leaves. If a person with measles coughed in a crowded room, 90% of the unvaccinated people in that room would catch the illness, according to the CDC.
The disease is preventable through vaccinations. To prevent an outbreak, nearly 94% of a community needs to be immunized, Echols said. That allows for “herd immunity” to take place. Unvaccinated young children, unvaccinated pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are at the highest risk for catching the disease.
Outbreaks of the disease are at a decades-long high as fewer people are vaccinated. The federal government has reported 839 cases so far this year. Some parents who believe vaccines cause autism or are otherwise unsafe or unnatural are not having their children vaccinated. Echols and other doctors and health organizations, including the World Health Organization and the CDC, say science proves vaccines work and are safe for most people.
Reaching anti-vaccine residents in St. Louis is a priority for the health department, Echols said. Most children receive the vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella as a requirement to go to school or day care in Missouri.
“That leads to some protection,” Echols said. “However, we do have pockets of unvaccinated populations [in St. Louis], so for the health department, it’s really a priority for us to identify where those populations are and go out and educate them.”
Missouri’s vaccination laws are less strict than other states. While all states allow for medical exemptions from vaccine requirements, Missouri allows for parents to abstain because of religious beliefs as well.
While most of the outbreaks this year have been in communities in cities on the west and east coast, an outbreak last year in Kansas City resulted in 14 cases of measles. Cases have been reported in 23 states, including Missouri, in 2019. A single case in Jefferson County has not led to a larger outbreak, according to health officials.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services also is urging people to get booster shots for MMR and other vaccines, such as a flu shot.
“The best protection against measles is the MMR vaccine. Getting one dose makes 95% of people who receive it immune and a second dose produces immunity in 99%,” department officials wrote in a news release.
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