With a little more than four months to go in 2018, California residents already have contracted more cases of the measles this year than they did in all of 2017, according to the California Department of Public Health.
There have been 18 cases in California as of Aug. 10, one of them a child in Sacramento County whom officials say came down with the illness after visiting a foreign country. Last year, there were 15 cases statewide, none of them in the four-county capital region.
Dr. Kenneth Hempstead, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente’s Roseville Medical Center, said the increase in cases is an important reminder to the public that measles still exist. In fact, he said, the European Union has been dealing with a measles outbreak. The World Health Organization reported 41,000 cases in Europe in the first half of 2018, and at least 37 people have died.
“The potential to have things spread, if you have enough people who aren’t protected, is substantial,” Hempstead said, “and that’s why we’re trying to get the word out. We don’t want it to be a dangerous situation. We’d rather have it be zero cases, of course.”
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Seven other California counties have reported measles cases this year: Alameda, Fresno, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Luis Obispo and Santa Clara.
Nationwide, 107 people have contracted the disease in 21 states, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Compare that with 2017, when the disease sickened 118 people in 15 states. The agency noted that one of every 1,000 children who contract the disease develops brain damage and two of every 1,000 children will die from complications.
Because so many U.S. residents get vaccinated, the rates of infection have been low, Hempstead said, and deaths are rare. The mortality rate was as high as 15 percent before the advent of more modern health care, Hempstead said, so it used to be quite deadly with very large outbreaks killing hundreds of thousands of children.
Vaccinations are meant to protect each child, Hempstead said, but they’re also meant to protect all the children who can’t yet rely upon the vaccine for protection. Any child under 12 months is just too young for the vaccine to be effective yet, Hempstead said, because their immune system is just too immature to provide a really robust response. Children fighting cancers may have had a vaccine, but cancer treatments have compromised their immunity.
“It’s ... very scary for families of children who can’t be protected,” Hempstead said. “I’m ultimately relying on my neighbors to help protect my vulnerable child.”