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NJ Department of Health Warns of Potential Measles Exposure at Newark Airport

The New Jersey Department of Health issued a public health alert, warning of potential measles exposure at Newark Liberty International Airport.

*Updated: 1/22/2017 at 1:11 PM EST

First described in the 9th century by a Persian doctor, measles remains a highly contagious infectious disease on a global scale. Although overall less common in the United States, most measles cases that do occur in the country are the result of international travel and waning vaccination rates.

Now, the disease seems to have reared its ugly head in the state of New Jersey.

The New Jersey Department of Health has released a public health alert warning of potential exposure at Newark Liberty International Airport. An infected international traveler, a female student from Indiana University (IU), arrived in Terminal C and departed to Indianapolis from a domestic terminal on January 2, 2018.

"Since measles is still common in many countries, travelers will continue to bring this disease into the United States," NJ's state epidemiologist Christina Tan, MD, told Contagion ®. "People who are unvaccinated for any reason, including those who refuse vaccination, risk getting infected with measles and spreading it to others. And they may spread measles to people who cannot get vaccinated because they are too young or have specific health conditions."

The alert warns anyone who was at the airport between 6:30 AM and 5:30 PM may have been exposed to measles. "Measles spreads when a person infected with the measles virus breathes, coughs, or sneezes. It is very contagious. You can catch measles just by being in a room where a person with measles has been, up to 2 hours after that person is gone," Dr. Tan explained. "And you can catch measles from an infected person even before they have a measles rash. Almost everyone who has not had the MMR shot will get measles if they are exposed to the measles virus."

Anyone infected could develop symptoms as late as January 23. Those who present with symptoms associated with measles—high fever, cough, runny nose, red watery eyes, Koplik spots in the mouth—are recommended to call their health care provider prior to heading to a medical office or emergency department; this allows for special arrangements to be made that could serve to protect other patients and staff from potential exposure.

While the local health departments are channeling their efforts into notifying NJ residents who could have potentially been exposed to the disease on a flight with the student, the Indiana University is working with the Monroe County Health Department of Health to notify those who may have come into close contact with the student.

“We take measles very seriously and ask the public to do the same,” Diana Ebling, MD, medical director at the IU Health Center, said in a press release. “We will contact campus and community members who may have been exposed, but we also want our students and staff to review their own immunization history and take appropriate steps.”

The CDC recommends that children receive 2 doses of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine; the first dose should be received between 12 and 15 months of age, while the second dose should be received between 4 and 6 years of age. "Measles can be dangerous, especially for babies and young children. From 2001-2013, 28% of children younger than 5 years old who had measles had to be treated in the hospital," Dr. Tan said. "For some children, measles can lead to: pneumonia, lifelong brain damage, deafness, and death."

Students at IU are required to have had received their 2 doses of MMR vaccine (as well as the documentation to prove it) previous to enrolling for their second semester of classes. Although the university requests that the students receive their vaccines prior to arriving on campus, some tend to receive them in the weeks following, according to the university’s press release.

The Illinois Department of Health (IDPH) has also released an alert warning of potential measles exposure at the Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The DOH reports that an infected passenger who arrived in Terminal 5 after flying internationally departed on a domestic flight from Terminal 1 on January 10, 2018. Anyone at the airport between 6:30 AM and 1:00 PM on that date may have potentially been exposed; those who suspect they might have been should contact their health care provider.

On January 17, 2018, the IDPH confirmed a second case of measles, one that they have deemed unrelated to the previous case. They stress that the individuals were not infected at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, but had already contracted measles from elsewhere; this is not a measles outbreak at the airport. The IDPH shares locations that the second case has visited from January 9-13, so that the public can be aware of potential exposure.

The fact that measles is so easily spread underscores the importance of vaccination. “The measles vaccine is very effective. One dose of measles vaccine is about 93% effective at preventing measles if exposed to the virus. Two doses are about 97% effective," Dr. Tan stressed. "Adults who have not had measles infection or are unvaccinated are also at risk for infection. All adults should check with their healthcare provider to see if they are up to date on their vaccinations especially if they will be traveling to other countries or having contact with international travelers."