Asheville public health officials brace for possible measles outbreak


Measles graphic via Buncombe County Public Health Department.

Asheville public health officials are bracing for a possible measles outbreak as the biggest outbreak of the virus in the U.S. in the past 25 years continues. As of May 1, there were no reported measles cases in Buncombe County, but there were three cases reported in eastern Tennessee.

Here are highlights from the information the Buncombe County Public Health Department is sharing:

-Measles is a highly contagious virus that can cause serious health issues.

-Measles starts with a high fever, cough, runny nose, and red, watery eyes. Three to five days later, a rash of red spots and bumps starts on the face and spreads down to the rest of the body.

-Measles spreads through the air through coughing and sneezing, and can live for up to two hours in the airspace where a person sick with measles has been. Measles spreads so easily that if one person has it, nine out of 10 non-immune people close to them will also become sick with measles. Additionally, people with measles can spread it to others starting four days before their rash appears.

-The MMR vaccine is the best protection against measles. Everyone in our community plays an important role in creating and maintaining the shield of protection that immunizations provide. The county health department continues to urge community members to be fully immunized.

-One out of four people who get measles will be hospitalized. It can be most dangerous for children less than 5 years of age.

-Up to 1 out of 20 children with measles will develop pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young children. One child in 1,000 with measles will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain), which can lead to hearing loss or other disabilities. And one to two children with measles will die from it. In a pregnant woman, measles can cause premature birth or a low birthweight baby.

-Why are Buncombe County health officials so concerned? Because they know that Buncombe County has had one of the highest rates of vaccine exemptions in North Carolina, as reported by local schools, which are required to report exemption rates. (The state allows religious or medical exemptions of vaccines.) Some 5.7 percent of kindergartners received religious or medical exemptions in the 2017-18 school year, much higher than the North Carolina average of 1.2 percent.