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After Confirming Measles Case, Officials Warn Austin Is At Risk Because Of Low Vaccination Rates

Gabriel C. Pérez

Public health officials say the first case of measles in Austin in more than 20 years was contracted by a person who is now in Virginia.

The person is no longer contagious, officials say. There are no other reported cases in the area at this point.

Dr. Mark Escott, interim head of Austin Public Health, said at a press conference Monday morning that the case is seemingly isolated. He warned people who have not received a measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine – or a booster shot of the vaccine – to be mindful if they develop symptoms before the new year and to contact their doctor ahead of time if they seek treatment to avoid exposure to other patients.

Measles is highly contagious and can be dangerous for children under 5, as well as anyone with a weak immune system.

Officials say there's little risk to people who have received both doses of the vaccination, but are concerned about those who are unvaccinated or who have received only one dosage.

Escott said the person who contracted the virus was abroad in Europe and then visited a handful of places in North and Central Austin between Dec. 14 and Dec. 17. APH said those locations would be relatively safe about two hours after exposure. Investigators and epidemiologists say what's most concerning is that the person traveled through Austin Bergstrom International Airport.

APH is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Department of State Health Services to contact people who may have been exposed. The agency said it is in contact with United Airlines, the airline on which the patient flew on Dec. 17.

Escott said Austin is at particular risk for an outbreak of measles, as certain schools within the school district have large concentrations of students with waivers for the state's required vaccinations for public school students, a list which includes the MMR vaccine. A study last year put Travis County on a list of 25  counties at high risk for a measles outbreak because of that unvaccinated population and high rates of international travel through ABIA.

"We do have pockets in the community where that vaccination rate is only 50 to 60 percent, which means we have pockets that are quite vulnerable to this disease," Escott said. 

He attributed the uptick in cases nationwide to parents not vaccinating their children.

"We are seeing quite a remarkable trend across the United States in relation to measles cases," he said. "This is directly attributable to the anti-vaccine movement."

Escott said he's also concerned that medical providers may not be able to spot the symptoms of measles, which include sore eyes, fever, coughing and a rash that typically starts on a patient's face and spreads quickly. 

"We had fixed this problem, and this is a relatively new thing for us that we've got to get a handle on," he said. "We do have an entire generation of physicians who've never seen a case of measles. So part of our effort is to educate the physicians on what this rash looks like and what the clinical syndrome looks like, so that they're aware."

The disease is contagious up to four days before and after a person develops a rash. Escott said the patient's travels in Europe were outside that timeframe.

The health authority said the list of possible exposure sites might change as it investigates the case further. You can find more information on the case and vaccinations at the  city's measles-monitoring website.

Correction: A previous headline on this story inaccurately linked the measles case to the anti-vaccination movement. The story also said the patient was unvaccinated; that information was not released. Research from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prvention, however, suggests adults who have received a second dosage of the MMR vaccine have at least a 97% chance of being protected against the measles virus.    

Got a tip? Email Andrew at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber .

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Andrew Weber is a freelance reporter and associate editor for KUT News. A graduate of St. Edward's University with a degree in English, Andrew has previously interned with The Texas Tribune, The Austin American-Statesman and KOOP Radio.