As spring break winds to a close, Kern County public health officials are hoping that a recent measles outbreak doesn't find its way back the county along with families returning from travels to other parts of the state or country, or even abroad.
“We brace for spring break,” said Kim Hernandez, assistant division director of health services of the Kern County Public Health Services department. “We know a lot of colleges have already had their spring breaks and have lots of people traveling, but if you’re not immune, you could easily pick it up.”
Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that has infected 555 individuals in the United States this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are current outbreaks in Butte County in California, Washington, New York, New Jersey and Michigan. More people have been infected with measles in the U.S. in 2019 than nine of the last 10 years.
Though no Kern County resident has contracted measles this year, the increase of travel around the Easter holiday and spring break means a higher risk of exposure, Hernandez said.
“We have big concerns about travel,” she added.
Measles is a disease of humans and not spread by any other animal species, according to the CDC. The virus lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person and spreads through coughing and sneezing. It can live for up to two hours in an airspace.
It is so contagious that if one person has it, up to 90 percent of those nearby who are not immune will also get infected. About 25 percent of people who get measles will be hospitalized and about 0.1-02 percent will die, according to the CDC.
“You don’t actually have to be near that person you don’t have to ever see that person, meet that person, they don’t have to cough on you,” Hernandez said. “You just have to travel through the same airspace that that infected person was in within the last two hours.”
Symptoms usually start with a high fever, cough, runny nose, and red and watery eyes, according to the CDC. A rash will break out three to five days after initial symptoms, starting as flat red spots on the face at the hairline before descending.
It can take three weeks for an infected person to show symptoms, Hernandez said, but that person can spread the virus the entire time.
Since 2001, there has only been one Kern County resident with a confirmed case of measles, which happened in 2004. As of April 17, there were 23 confirmed measles cases in California, including one in neighboring Los Angeles County, according to the state’s department of public health.
Last year, a person diagnosed with measles possibly exposed Bakersfield residents at the Taco Bell at 3200 California Ave., but no one from Kern County was infected, Hernandez said.
The last large outbreak in California happened in 2014-15 and was associated with exposures at Disneyland. At least 131 California residents and people from other states and countries were infected, according to the California Department of Public Health.
“While we haven’t had cases in Kern County residents, we’ve had a number of cases from outside our county who have passed through our county and potentially exposed our residents,” Hernandez said. “We’ve been very lucky that no cases have resulted from that, but it’s highly likely because we have good vaccination rates and the people that they’re coming across are already immune.”
The last major outbreak of measles in Kern County occurred in 1990 during a nationwide resurgence of reported cases. There were more than 1,000 cases of measles in Kern County that year, Hernandez said, and 27,672 in the U.S.
In 2000, measles was declared eliminated from the United States, meaning there was not continuous transmission for 12 months. Two doses of the measles vaccine are about 97 percent effective at preventing measles, according to the CDC.
Hernandez urged people who think they might have measles to call their healthcare provider rather than showing up at the doctor’s office or hospital so necessary precautions can be taken and other people are not exposed.
Those who cannot be vaccinated — babies less than a year old and people who are immunocompromised — are considered high-risk individuals.
“It’s really up to all the rest of us to be immune so that we don’t get sick so that we don’t pass it to people we need to protect,” Hernandez said.