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The current measles outbreak in the United States has ignited a firestorm of chatter from the media and political class recently, somewhat reminiscent to what happened last year with Ebola.

Image/CDC

Image/CDC

Vaccines has been a contentious topic for over a century and was really inflamed after the debunked Andrew Wakefield paper.

Why is there so much rhetoric from pols and media personalities now? Because measles is highly contagious and vaccines against the Paramyxovirus is really the only prevention against the measles.

How contagious is measles you ask?

Mayo Clinic measles expert, Roberto Cattaneo, PhD says, “It’s the most transmissible virus we know.”

In a 2011 study published in the journal Nature, Cattaneo and his colleagues discovered that the virus lodges in the trachea, or windpipe, where it replicates millions of times. There, it induces spasms of coughing to launch virus copies out of the sick person and into a bystander – or possibly many bystanders.

“All those virus copies expelled from the infected host’s trachea are in just the right position to ride out into the air – ionized into the finest droplets – to infect their next hosts,” Cattaneo explained.

Another measles expert, molecular virologist Hector Aguilar-Carreno of Washington State University says,“Measles is one of the most contagious viruses known on the planet, and in recent years childhood immunizations against it have been dropping, he said.

“Add those factors to a crowded theme park and you’ve got prime conditions for the virus to spread among visitors and travel with them after they leave.”

At the petri-dish level, the measles virus is extremely stable, said Aguilar-Carreno. Whether suspended in air space or waiting on a table top, it can survive and remain infectious for up to two hours, he explained.

“Unlike Ebola, measles is spread through the air,” he said. “It can linger long after an infected person leaves a room and then be transmitted to another person who simply walks in.”

Kent State University professor, Tara Smith, PhD, wrote about the contagiousness of measles comparing it the Ebola, which headlined the news a few short months ago.

Remember a few months back, when that figure was circulating showing that Ebola wasn’t particularly easy to spread? Well, measles very much is. The basic reproductive rate for Ebola is around 2, meaning on average each infected person will cause an additional 2 infections in susceptible individuals.

And what’s the reproductive number for measles?

Eighteen. Eight. Teen. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it is literally one of the most contagious diseases we know of.  On average, if you have 10 susceptible individuals exposed to a measles patient, 9 will end up getting sick.

Although some say measles is not a big deal, like Dr. Bob Sears, the numbers don’t back up that statement. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that some people may suffer from severe complications, such as pneumonia (infection of the lungs) and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). They may need to be hospitalized and could die.

  • As many as one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children.
  • About one child out of every 1,000 who get measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) that can lead to convulsions and can leave the child deaf or mentally retarded.
  • For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it.

Worldwide, according to new data published in the WHO Weekly Epidemiological Report, in 2013 there were an estimated 145,700 measles deaths.

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