So. Measles. What actually is it?

Measles is a virus that’s especially dangerous to young children. Symptoms include fever, sore throat and little white spots (called Koplik’s spots) in the mouth. It’s also having a resurgence.

How do you get it?

Measles is spread when people get coughed on or sneezed on by an infected person. The infected particles can be in the air or stick to surfaces – so maybe think twice before eating off that dining hall table.

Why are we talking about it now?

The U.S. is facing the most cases of measles it has seen since the country-wide elimination of the disease in 2000. This elimination was largely due to the MMR vaccine, which covers measles, mumps and rubella. You probably got your second dose of it before you started kindergarten. Before the vaccine, millions of people would get measles every year. A few hundred patients would die from it. Others had to deal with effects like encephalitis, the swelling of the brain.

But elimination in the U.S. doesn’t mean it’s completely gone. Other countries in the world still struggle with outbreaks of measles, and there’s been an uptick in cases this year. This means an unvaccinated traveller can bring the disease into the U.S. with them. Here’s a chart of the number of measles cases from the last decade:

Data: Center for Disease Control. NOTE: The 2018 statistic is as of December 29, 2018. The 2019 statistic is as of May 3, 2019.

You said millions of people used to get it. Why should we be worried about a few hundred?

It’s shining a light on the dangers of not being vaccinated. Every state has laws requiring children to get vaccinated before starting school. But every state also has a different set of exemptions: As of 2016, 46 states allowed religious exemptions while some others allowed other personal exemptions. People claim to have all sorts of reasons for not vaccinating their children: distrust of the government, the belief that their lifestyle will protect their children and other reasons, which are simply not true. Some people also can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons.

This year's and last year’s outbreaks – the Center of Disease Control (CDC) considers an outbreak of measles to be three or more cases in one area – have been particularly tough on Orthodox Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey. New York City has taken some big steps to try to prevent more cases. Unvaccinated people in certain parts of the city have to get vaccinated or face a hefty fine. Officials in Rockland County, New York also tried to bar unvaccinated children from public spaces. The measure didn’t pass, but it demonstrates how bad the situation is getting.

The spread of the disease isn’t just concentrated on the East Coast. Twenty-three states (including Illinois – love that for us) have reported measles cases to the CDC. An outbreak was declared in Los Angeles County, and hundreds of people at UCLA and California State University, Los Angeles were quarantined. Imagine getting locked up in Bobb for 48 hours.

What can I do to avoid getting measles?

If you were born before 1957, you’ve probably already contracted measles and have an immunity.

If not, both the CDC and the Mayo Clinic agree that vaccines are the best way to prevent measles, especially if you’re traveling internationally. If you’re unsure about whether or not you’ve been vaccinated, check your vaccination records. If you don’t have vaccination records, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated again. There’s no harm in getting the shot if you’ve already had it.

How’s this going to end?

We don’t know right now. More and more people are getting diagnosed with measles every day. There’s no official treatment for measles, but there are measures that can be taken to reduce symptoms. Some people are pushing to end religious exemptions. For now, all we can do is watch and wait.