Measles Exposure Follows an Unvaccinated Passenger’s Flight Pattern

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Here’s what can happen when you don’t get vaccinated for a highly communicable disease, then take a series of overseas and transcontinental flights.

A 27-year-old Santa Fe woman (who remains anonymous) may have infected people with measles in five cities, say health officials. On Feb. 20, she took a flight from London to Washington’s Dulles International Airport. On Feb. 22, she flew from Baltimore Thurgood Marshall Airport to Denver International, then from Denver to Albuquerque. She was eventually diagnosed with measles in New Mexico; she hasn’t been vaccinated.

Local public health officials are trying to notify passengers who sat five rows behind and in front of the woman on each of her flights, as well as anyone from those airports who might have come into contact with her. Meanwhile, any passengers who develop symptoms of measles — including fever of 101 or higher, runny nose, red, watery eyes and a red rash on the face and body — should contact their physicians, and otherwise stay at home to avoid infecting other people.

The highly contagious measles virus can be especially dangerous to infants younger than 1, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems. It may rarely cause potentially fatal side effects like pneumonia and brain swelling.

As the AP reported:

Measles can linger in the air for two hours and spreads through coughing, sneezing or secretions from the mouth, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“Air currents can take the virus to the far corners of the room and into another room,” [Vanderbilt University infection-disease expert William] Schaffner says. “The current generation of doctors won’t recognize it because they’ve never seen it.”

Because of childhood immunizations, the measles had been virtually eradicated in the U.S. and Canada, but rates have recently begun to rise again. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 130 cases were reported in 15 U.S. states in 2008, the most recent large measles outbreak in the U.S. Worldwide, however, there were 164,000 measles deaths in 2008, most in children under age 5 in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization.

Separately, to the AP reports, a young employee of the French consulate in Boston was also diagnosed with measles this month, and health-care workers have been giving vaccinations to scores of people who have come into contact with her.