Infectious diseases like measles were once considered under control in wealthy countries, but now the World Health Organization warns that we could be facing a global measles outbreak.

Measles cases have risen sharply worldwide, particularly in developed countries.

Many people don’t think of measles as a big deal. But measles can kill. It can also cause permanent disabilities. So far this year, 10 states in the U.S. have reported measles cases. Dr. Camille Sabella at Cleveland Clinic Children’s expects it to break out in Ohio, too.

Very contagious

“Measles is incredibly contagious,” he said. “Once it gets around the community it’s very difficult because it’s airborne.”

The virus spreads by droplets coughed into the air. Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Center for Disease Control warns people to get vaccinated.

“If a person with measles is in a room with 10 other people who are unvaccinated, nine of them will get measles,” she said.

The virus can stay in the air or on surfaces for two hours, and, Messonnier says, it’s not always obvious who has it.

“Somebody can transmit measles four days before they have the rash,” she said. “That means they can transmit it even before they know that they’re infectious.”

Dr. Roberta DeBiasi at Children’s National Medical Center says it is even hard for doctors and nurses to know who has measles early on.

“A child coming in the prodrome of measles will look like any other child with a cold with a runny nose and cough and won’t have that rash for four days,” DeBiasi said.

FILE - A notice for a health alert about measles is posted on the door of a m
FILE – A notice for a health alert about measles is posted on the door of a medical facility in Seattle, Washington, Feb. 13, 2019.

Children most at risk

Sabella says measles is especially dangerous for babies and young children.

“It is very difficult to protect children during a measles outbreak if they have not been vaccinated,” he said.

The rash usually begins on the face and spreads to other parts of the body. Measles is accompanied by a high fever, which in itself can be dangerous for children.

Some people have severe complications. Measles can cause pneumonia. That’s the most common cause of death from the measles virus in young children. Measles can also infect the brain and cause death or permanent damage.

The best protection against measles is a vaccine. That’s what Dr. Katherine O’Brien at the World Heath Organization says.

“We have a fantastic vaccine against measles. The vaccine has been around for over 50 years, hundreds of millions of children have received this vaccine and are now healthy thriving adults, in large parts because they didn’t die of measles because they got vaccine.

The World Health Organization says there were more cases of measles in 2018 than in 2017, largely because an increasing number of parents are not vaccinating their children. In rich countries, it’s by choice. In poor countries, it’s often because there is no choice.