Measles, a disease we thought was history, is making a worrisome comeback in the US.
There has been a spike in cases in California, where dense clusters of children are going without the vaccine because their parents have refused it.
These clusters are particularly dangerous because they threaten herd immunity, the scientifically-proven concept that so long as a certain percentage of people in a community are vaccinated, the majority is protected from a disease (including those who are too young or too ill to be vaccinated).
In December three Australians who attended a university graduation ceremony in Melbourne were diagnosed with measles, prompting concerns about others who may have been exposed to the infectious illness, the ABC reported.
Earlier this month, anti-vaccination campaigner Dr Sherri Tenpenny cancelled her speaking tour of Australia after threats were made against her.
During her tour, which was scheduled for March, Tenpenny planned to address what she says are the negative impacts of vaccines on health.
“What is actually in those vaccines? There’s a whole lot more coming through that needle than you can possibly imagine,” Tenpenny says.
As of the late 1990s, measles was a disease that had all but disappeared in the United States. This month, thanks in part to a recent flare-up at Disneyland, the number of reported cases shot up to 102, a record for a disease that’s reached 100 annual cases only a handful of times since 2001.
But measles, viral infection of the respiratory system, immune system, and skin, spreads quickly — so fast that it’s roughly 9 times more contagious than Ebola.
For every person who has measles, about 18 more will get it. Part of the reason it’s so infectious is that it’s airborne, meaning that unlike Ebola (which spreads only via the bodily fluids of infected people), it can be spread via a stray cough or sneeze and survive for up to two hours on surfaces and in the air.
Also unlike Ebola, someone with measles doesn’t have to have symptoms to spread it. Once you get measles, you can infect others for four days before you develop any visible symptoms, such as the telltale all-over-the-body rash or a hacking cough.
Obviously, those who haven’t gotten the measles vaccine are at the highest risk of infection. For those people, roughly 90% of those exposed to the virus will get sick. Conversely, people who have received both doses of the MMR vaccine have only about a 1% chance of being infected when exposed.
There’s no specific treatment for measles, and while the disease typically runs its course over a two-to-three week period, it can also lead to some worrisome complications. For every 10 people who get measles, about three develop other conditions like pneumonia, ear infections, or diarrhoea. More severe complications are much rarer, but the worst cases of measles can lead to encephalitis (swelling of the brain), mental delays, deafness, and even death.
Take a look at the chart below, designed by data journalist David McCandless of Information is Beautiful, to see how measles compares with Ebola in terms of how easily it spreads. The farther to the right, the more likely you are to catch the virus if you are exposed to it; the higher up on the chart, the more deadly the virus.
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