Nine children have been hospitalised in an Ohio measles outbreak that’s infected more than a dozen

Ohio health authorities are calling on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate a local outbreak of measles that has so far infected 24 children and hospitalised at least nine.

The outbreak of the vaccine-preventable virus began in early November, with Columbus Public Health (CPH) and Franklin County Public Health (FCPH) announcing they were investigating four confirmed cases, all associated with one day care facility and in children who were unvaccinated.

“We are working diligently with the cases to identify any potential exposures and to notify people who were exposed,” said CPH Commissioner Dr Mysheika Roberts, the public health official said in the 9 November statement warning about the outbreak. “The most important thing you can do to protect against measles is to get vaccinated with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, which is safe and highly effective.”

Less than two weeks later, officials are now calling on the federal public health agency to step in. They are now reporting more than a dozen confirmed cases.

“We asked the CDC for assistance and they will be sending two epidemiologists at the end of the month to assist with our local investigation,” Kelli Newman, a spokesperson for Columbus Public Health, told CNN in an email Thursday.

The federal health agency confirmed on Thursday that it was aware of the outbreak and planned to deploy “a small team to Ohio to assist on the ground with the investigation.”

“State and local health authorities are in the process of notifying potentially exposed residents, making sure they are vaccinated, and helping any community members who may have been exposed understand the signs and symptoms of measles infection,” Kristen Nordlund, CDC spokesperson, said in an emailed statement. “Anyone who may have been exposed should follow up with their healthcare provider.”

In a Friday morning update from CPH, officials reported that there were at least 19 confirmed cases of the virus spreading throughout 10 day care centres and two schools, with more suspected cases being reported.

So far, all of the cases confirmed have been in children who are unvaccinated for the preventable disease.

“All but one are less than 4 years old. One child is 6 years old,” Ms Newman said.

Officials from CPH and FCPH have been investigating all of the cases and tracing the contacts of anyone who may have been exposed to the measles virus in order to help stall the ballooning outbreak.

“All the facilities are cooperating with public health, and they have notified all parents and removed all unvaccinated students out of the facility for 21 days after the last case onset,” Ms Newman said in a statement given to CBS News. “Our investigation and contact tracing is ongoing and we don’t know yet where the outbreak started.”

Symptoms for measles present first with flu-like reactions that can range from a fever, runny nose and watery eyes with the irritating rash typically cropping up after three to five days of the first symptoms.

Though it very rarely causes serious illness in older children, it can have dangerous complications for younger children, pregnant people or older people with compromised immune systems.

Long term complications for young children include ear infections, pneumonia and encephalitis (the swelling of the brain), which occurs in about 1 out of every 1,000 children who contract measles. In rare cases, the disease can be fatal for young kids. Nearly one to three of every 1,000 children who become infected with measles will die from respiratory and neurologic complications, the CDC reports.

Fortunately, these risks have been kept relatively low in recent years, largely because of a highly effective childhood vaccine program in the US that has made measles locally eradicated for many decades.

That protection, however, has been threatened in recent years. Anti-vaccination pockets of the US have created vulnerable super spreader events and travel to countries where the disease is not contained have further threatened to dethrone the country’s measles-free status as children who are too young to receive the full routine of shots contract it.

In 2019, measles infected 860,000 people and killed 200,000 people worldwide -- about a 50 per cent increase in fatalities from just three years earlier. That same year, the US recorded 1,200 cases of the vaccine-preventable disease, marking the largest tally of it since the early 1990s.

The CDC recommends a routine vaccination program to prevent measles with two doses of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine, delivered first at 12 months to 15 months old and the second shot at 4 to 6 years old.

For a community to have herd immunity from outbreaks of the measles, doctors recommend 95 per cent of the population to be vaccinated.

In the US, the CDC estimates that more than 90 per cent of the children have been vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella by age 2, though there are pockets across the country where those figures vary.

In 2013, just two years before a large outbreak of measles linked to visits to Disneyland theme parks would go on to infect 131 Californians, the state’s vaccination rate for MMR was at an all-time low of 92.3 per cent.

This recent outbreak in Ohio also arrives as the World Health Organizationhas issued warnings this year that the conditions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic have made populations ripe for measles epidemics.

In January and February 2022, the global public health organisation reported that worldwide measles cases had increased by 79 per cent compared to the same time period in 2021.

This increase, the agency said, could be attributed to pandemic-related disruptions in delivering routine immunisation for young children, a diversion of resources to get other jabs in people’s arms (namely, the Covid-19 vaccines) and increasing inequalities in terms of access to vaccines across the globe.

“Measles is more than a dangerous and potentially deadly disease. It is also an early indication that there are gaps in our global immunization coverage, gaps vulnerable children cannot afford,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director. “It is encouraging that people in many communities are beginning to feel protected enough from COVID-19 to return to more social activities. But doing so in places where children are not receiving routine vaccination creates the perfect storm for the spread of a disease like measles.”