Measles outbreak nearly triples in Ohio, expected to last ‘several months’

Measles outbreak nearly triples in Ohio, expected to last ‘several months’

A false color image of the measles virus.

A outbreak of smallpox in Columbus, Ohio, the area has nearly tripled in the past two weeks as officials say they struggle to identify the geographic spread of the outbreak and expect it to drag on for months.

Confirmed cases have increased from 18 in mid-November to the 50 cases confirmed, as of Friday morning. About twenty cases require hospitalization. No deaths have been reported.

All affected children are completely unvaccinated. Nine cases are in babies under one year old, who usually do not yet meet the requirements for vaccination. Twenty-six cases were in infants aged 1 to 2 years—eligible for the first dose. Ten cases are in toddlers between the ages of 3 and 5 – some of whom would be eligible for a second dose – and five cases are in children aged between 6 and 17.

At a news conference earlier this week, health officials said at least 25 percent of 2-year-olds in the area have not been vaccinated with the safe and effective MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella. Based on census data from Franklin County, which includes Columbus, that means tens of thousands of children in the area are vulnerable to a highly contagious virus that can easily become serious and even life-threatening in young children.

Growth is expected

Measles is an airborne virus that is spread by coughing, talking, or even being in close proximity to an infected person. In closed spaces, the virus can remain in the air for up to two hours after an infected person has passed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 90 percent of unvaccinated people exposed to the virus will become infected.

“I expect our numbers to continue to grow,” said Mysheika Roberts, Columbus Public Health Commissioner. press conference this week. “In talking to the CDC and our colleagues around the country who have experienced measles outbreaks, this could take several months.”

Local health officials are now working closely with the CDC and Nationwide Children’s Hospital to address the cases and try to contain the outbreak. But Roberts admitted at a press conference that they still have trouble understanding the scale of the outbreak.

For example, in some measles outbreak responses, health officials may decide to preemptively vaccinate infants aged 6 to 11 months if they are considered to be at high risk of infection—infants are usually eligible for the first dose of MMR at 12 months, with a second dose given between the ages of 4 and 6. But that early vaccination strategy is usually applied when epidemiologists can pinpoint at-risk communities, which is not the case in Columbus.

“We have discussed it with the CDC,” Roberts said. “Communities that have done this in the past have been able to really define the geographic location of where the cases are. We’re not sure we can really narrow down the geographic area. So we’re looking into that carefully. We’re working with our colleagues at the CDC [and] we’re really trying to determine where those cases are to see if there’s a segment of our community that we could offer that to parents as an option.”

Roberts noted that so far the outbreak covers three public health jurisdictions: Columbus Public Health, Franklin County Public Health and the Ross County Health District. Ross County is about 47 miles south of Franklin County, with another county, Pickaway, in between.

“Vaccinate them now”

In addition to the three geographic areas, Roberts also stated three specific locations where confirmed cases were known to be contagious, including a store, a church and a mall. She listed locations, dates and times of potential exposure down to hours, taking into account the possibility that the virus could linger for up to two hours.

“We have no way of informing individuals in those areas without going to the media,” Robert said.

The 50 cases so far have been counted since November 7 and are believed to be caused by the spread of the virus in the local community. There were four other travel-related cases in the area earlier in the year, between June and October. It is not clear how the current outbreak started, but officials suspect it is linked to one of the earlier travel-related cases.

Ohio’s current 2022 measles case count of 54 cases represents the largest share of the nation’s total. The CDC reported a total of 55 cases nationwide as of Nov. 24. But the number of cases is expected to rise in Ohio. And with anti-vaccine sentiment running rampant and missed vaccinations during the pandemic, health experts in the U.S. and around the world are bracing for a fierce resurgence of the highly contagious virus.

Vaccination against measles is very protective and the best weapon in the fight against a potentially fatal infection. Roberts asked local parents of unvaccinated children to vaccinate their children as soon as possible against the virus swirling around their community.

“I strongly encourage those parents to vaccinate their children — now. Don’t wait. Don’t wait until after the holidays. Get them vaccinated now,” Roberts said.

She added that local health officials have opened vaccination clinics in recent weeks, but have not seen an increase in the number of children receiving MMR shots.

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