CLEVELAND COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- North Carolina could be seeing its first case of measles since the outbreak that began in California. That state announced Friday that they had 103 confirmed cases that began in mid-December, most in Orange County which is home to Disneyland where the outbreak began.
Since Jan. 1, there have been 110 confirmed cases in 16 states including the California and the District of Columbia, according to the CDC. North Carolina is not included in that number, yet. But that could change pending test results.
The Cleveland County Health Department has confirmed that two patients had symptoms consistent with the disease and are currently awaiting test results due early next week. Should those individuals test positive for the virus, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services will have to take steps similar to what they did back in 2013. It's a scenario Medical Epidemiologist Zach Moore, M.D. is not eager to repeat.
"The big year for measles for us was 2013 when we had a person who returned, an unvaccinated person who traveled to India and came back and developed measles in North Carolina. That person lived in a community where there were a lot of people who were not vaccinated, so we had a measles outbreak," said Moore.
In all there were 23 cases. The majority of those were in Stokes County, but it also spread to Orange, Forsyth, and Polk counties. For health officials, containing that outbreak took a considerable amount of time and effort.
"Just from that outbreak there were more than 1,000 contacts identified who were exposed to measles. Every single one of them had to be contacted, find out if they were immune to measles, and if they were not immune to measles then they had to be given vaccines right away if they could be done," Moore explained.
Last year, North Carolina only saw one case of measles, but even that led to 90 people being exposed, which is actually a low number considering how contagious this airborne virus is.
"Interestingly enough, measles is one of the most contagious viruses that we know of. So, someone who comes into contact with an infected person is very likely, something like 9 out of 10 people who are in close contact with an infected carrier or person with measles will also get infected," says Dr. Mark Piehl, the Medical Director for WakeMed's Children's Hospital.
Moore echoes that sentiment, elaborating on the potential for exposure.
"Measles is the most contagious infection that we know of now, so measles, it spreads through the respiratory secretions that are in someone's nose or throat, and they can stay airborne for a long period of time. So, if I have measles and I'm in a waiting room at a doctor's office and I walk out of that waiting room, someone who comes in an hour or up to two hours later could still be infected with it," he explains.
That's one of the reasons why state health officials are urging people to get vaccinated if they're able to and are not already.
"We do want people to know that measles is a serious infection, and back in the era before we had measles vaccination as part of our routine vaccination schedule in the United States, we had 3 or 4 million cases every year and a few hundred deaths. And globally it remains a huge problem and a major cause of death among children," said Moore.
Plus, even here measles can come with complications. And while they're not as prevalent as in third world countries, they can happen.
"About 1 in 10 will get ear infections which can result in hearing loss, 1 in 20 will get measles-pneumonia which is a potentially lethal condition, and about 1 in 1000 will get encephalitis which brings brain issues with it," he further explains.
As for the vaccine, medical experts say it is about 97 percent effective, making it one of the most effective vaccines out there. However, you can't get the first dose till you're 1, then a second booster dose is given around age 4 or 5. And there are some immune-compromised conditions that prevent this, such as kids or adults with cancer. But there are those who choose not to get vaccinated for religious or philosophical reasons. It's something that's frustrating for doctors who are on the front lines of treating patients, whether it's measles, whooping cough, or even the flu.
"Many of us have encountered illnesses that are fully preventable through vaccines [where] children have suffered or died from those infections," shared Piehl. "So I understand parents' fears, fears about the potential adverse effects of vaccines. But we know that the science is completely behind vaccination. We know it reduces vaccine preventable illnesses, it reduces complications and deaths from these illnesses, and that the vaccines are safe."
And, doctors and health professionals warn that unvaccinated individuals can contribute to the spread of outbreaks such as the one currently sweeping across the nation. In North Carolina our vaccination rate stands around 96 percent which is higher than the national average, and much higher than in some states.
If you have questions about the safety or effectiveness of the vaccine, talk to a trusted health professional such as your doctor. Adults may need a booster shot if their immunity has waned, which can be determined by a simple blood test. Symptoms of measles can be similar to the common cold, including a cough, runny nose, red eyes and a rash.
For more on this, including common questions surrounding measles, click HERE.
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2 possible cases of measles reported in Cleveland County