Measles: Here’s what you need to know

By: Ben Hess, M.D., TCHC Chief Medical Officer


For the first time in almost 30 years, measles has hit Minnesota with a vengeance.

As of June 9, the Minnesota Department of Health reported 76 total cases of measles in Hennepin, Ramsey, Crow Wing and Le Sueur counties.

To put that in perspective, Minnesota only had a total of 56 cases in the last 20 years, and this year, it already exceeded last year’s total for the entire United States.

This is the highest number of measles cases Minnesota has seen since 1990, when 460 people fell ill. With the numbers continuing to climb this year, it’s crucial that you learn all you can about the disease, what makes it so dangerous and how you can prevent the spread.


Recognizing the signs

Measles is a highly contagious respiratory virus. It is so contagious, in fact, that 90 percent of the people who come into contact with an infected individual will also become infected.

measles on childIf you’re infected, you are contagious for several days before you even know you’re sick and for several days after you think the illness has passed. The virus is also durable enough to survive for up to two hours in the air.

Because the disease settles in the mucus of the mouth and throat, breathing and swallowing can be difficult. Other symptoms include high fever, cough, red and watery eyes, runny nose, loss of appetite and fatigue.

You then develop a rash that begins as flat red spots at the hairline and spreads down your whole body.

When the disease takes hold, outcomes are unpredictable, especially in children younger than 5 and adults older than 20. They are more prone to serious conditions, like blindness, swelling of the brain, severe dehydration, ear infections or pneumonia. Even if they survive these complications, they could suffer from permanent damage or disability.

Unfortunately, there is no anti-viral treatment for measles, so all we can do is use supportive measures to try to relieve symptoms. Then we do our best to prevent the spread by quarantining people and improving vaccination rates.


Preventing the spreadMeasles graphic

Measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000 thanks to vaccinations and improved measles control, but anti-vaccination campaigns are threatening that progress.

No vaccine is 100 percent effective, but the more people who are vaccinated, the less likely it is that a disease will spread.

Outbreaks always start with unvaccinated populations. Because measles is so highly contagious, if you get a large enough outbreak, even people who have had their vaccinations are susceptible.

Right now, there are large pockets of unvaccinated patients in the tri-county area. It would be extremely easy for one of those cases from the Metro or Crow Wing County to spread to this area, and it could spread like wildfire.

Anyone who is not up to date on their vaccinations should consider getting them as soon as they can.

For more information, click here.

Watch for next week’s blog post where I’ll discuss the benefits and risks associated with vaccines, including a look at the link between vaccines and autism.


Dr. HessAbout the Author: A board-certified family practitioner and chief medical officer at Tri-County Health Care, Ben Hess, M.D., was inspired to study medicine because he wanted to make a difference in people’s lives every day. While not at work, Hess enjoys hunting, fishing, bowling and listening to public radio. He and his wife have three daughters and make their home in Verndale.

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