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A Measles Outbreak Has Hospitalized 32 Kids in Ohio

Most cases have occurred in unvaccinated children, many of whom were eligible for the highly effective shots.

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A child with a measles rash.
A child with a measles rash.
Photo: Shutterstock (Shutterstock)

A measles outbreak in Columbus, Ohio has sickened over 80 children and hospitalized dozens. The majority of these cases have involved unvaccinated children who were nonetheless eligible for vaccination. It is not yet clear how long the outbreak will continue, with the most recent case having been detected just last week.

Columbus Public Health officials first reported the outbreak in early November, though the first known cases are now believed to have begun in mid-October. According to the CPH’s publicly available data, updated Tuesday morning, there are now 82 confirmed cases of measles in the area, while 32 children have been hospitalized. None have died.

Measles is an incredibly contagious viral disease that usually causes flu-like illness and a distinctive rash. Though most cases are mild, the risk of severe, life-threatening complications is greater in very young children. Even a typical case can have far-reaching effects, since the measles virus can reset a person’s immunity to other infections. Luckily, there’s a safe and highly effective two-dose vaccine—the combination measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine—that has helped drive measles out of local circulation in many countries, the U.S. included.

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Unfortunately, many areas of the world remain poorly vaccinated against measles, and the virus continues to kill upwards of 100,000 people a year, mostly children under five. Occasionally, cases imported from other countries can cause outbreaks in the U.S. that largely spread among pockets of unvaccinated individuals and communities—and that seems to be what has happened here.

Of the 82 cases documented so far, at least 74 have been in unvaccinated children. Four other cases have been reported in partially vaccinated children, and four in children whose vaccination status is unknown. Some cases have involved children too young to get their shots, but 66% of cases have involved children between the ages of one to five, meaning that they were eligible for vaccination. So it’s likely that many or most of these children have parents who declined to get them vaccinated.

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The first few years of the pandemic saw a drop-off in reported measles cases, both in the U.S. and worldwide. But the virus has likely made a fierce comeback this year, thanks in large part to disrupted childhood vaccination programs and growing anti-vaccination sentiment across the globe. According to the World Health Organization, measles should be considered an imminent public health threat to every region of the world.

Measles remains locally eliminated in the U.S., but there are worrying trends here as well. For instance, a recent survey by the Kaiser Foundation has shown an increase in adults who disagree with childhood vaccination mandates for entering public school, which covers the MMR vaccine and many others. This increase appears to be mostly concentrated among Republican-leaning adults, however. In total, 28% of people now say that parents should decide whether children get these routine vaccinations, even at the cost of endangering others, up from 16% who said the same in 2019. Public support for children needing to get the MMR vaccine specifically has dropped from 82% to 71% during this time as well.

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Though newly reported cases in Ohio have declined in recent weeks, the outbreak may not be over. The latest case, defined as someone developing the telltale rash, occurred on December 19, according to CPH data. Measles is typically most contagious four days before and four days after the rash appears, and it can take up to two weeks for symptoms of a new case to emerge.