Health officials in Virginia are warning thousands of travelers may have been exposed to measles earlier this month after an infected international traveler flew into and out of Dulles International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Timeline of Potential Exposure
The Virginia Department of Health issued the warning on January 16th after confirming that a person with a confirmed case of measles traveled through parts of Northern Virginia.
The individual flew into Washington Dulles International Airport on January 3rd and then flew out of Reagan National Airport on January 4th while infectious. Given measles’ extremely high contagion levels, health officials estimate several thousand travelers may have been exposed.
Table 1: Measles Case Timeline
|Dulles International Airport
|Northern Virginia Area
|Reagan National Airport
Health officials said the traveler was infectious from January 2nd through January 8th.
Measles Background and Vaccination Importance
Measles is an extremely contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus and spread through the air by breathing, coughing, or sneezing. The virus remains active and contagious in the air and on surfaces for up to two hours.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that if one person has the measles virus up to 90% of unvaccinated people close to that person will also become infected.
Infected people can spread measles to others from four days before through four days after the rash appears. Therefore, travelers passing through the Dulles or Reagan airports on domestic or international flights anytime between January 2nd and January 8th may have been exposed.
Most people in the United States are vaccinated against measles as children, but travelers can be infected abroad and bring the disease back into the country. It spreads quickly among pockets of unvaccinated people.
The measles two-dose vaccine is 97% effective in preventing the virus. Health officials strongly recommend anyone who hasn’t received the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to get vaccinated with at least one dose, with two being ideal.
Concerning Low MMR Vaccination Rates
Health experts have warned for years that declining childhood vaccination rates are making the country ripe for measles outbreaks.
While measles was officially eliminated from the United States in 2000, meaning it was no longer continually being transmitted in this country, cases have been rising again due to international travel.
Table 2: Annual U.S. Measles Cases
|Number of Cases
The CDC reported over 2,700 measles cases in the U.S. in 2023, which was the largest number since 1994. Health experts point out several reasons for the resurgence, with unvaccinated U.S. travelers contracting the virus abroad being a major cause.
But they also note a concerning rise in vaccine hesitancy and outright vaccine refusal among some groups of people leading to localized outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles, especially in children.
While measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. more than 20 years ago, meaning it was no longer being regularly transmitted, the rise in cases shows consistent vaccination is key to keeping the virus suppressed.
Health Department Response Underway
The Virginia Department of Health has been working aggressively to identify contacts and potential exposures related to this traveler.
It has alerted health districts across Virginia to ensure reporting and surveillance are active statewide. Facilities have also implemented isolation and infection control protocols.
Virginia health officials said they were notifying passengers on the two flights the infected traveler was on and coordinating with state, local and airport health authorities in the areas the person visited.
The Virginia Department of Health reminded anyone who develops fever, runny nose, red eyes or a rash should stay at home and contact their healthcare provider immediately to get evaluated.
People born before 1957 are considered immune since they would likely have gotten measles as a child before the vaccine was available.
There also remains concern about what other areas the infected traveler may have visited while in the region and about their purpose for visiting. Health officials continue investigating these details.
Next Steps Moving Forward
Health experts said to expect additional measles cases and outbreaks in various communities across the country and world in 2024 given concerning vaccination trends.
They warned under-vaccinated groups remain highly susceptible and said everyone should ensure they and their families have maximum measles protection through proper vaccination.
People unsure of their vaccination status should get an MMR vaccine as soon as possible from their doctor or local pharmacy.
Health officials also said travelers should take extra precautions and urged people with measles symptoms to self-isolate immediately.
While the Virginia health department conducts its investigation into the exact exposures in this case, it’s likely thousands of travelers at Dulles and Reagan airports earlier this month were potentially exposed.
Officials expect to uncover more details in the coming days and plan ongoing surveillance and preparedness efforts should secondary infections occur.
A single traveler with measles passing through two busy international airports shows the ongoing threat posed by dropping vaccination rates and increased global mobility.
This scenario provides a sobering reminder that serious infectious diseases only a plane ride away, and should prompt all families to ensure they have maximum measles protection through proper vaccination.
Health officials warn to expect additional measles cases and outbreaks in 2024 and urge everyone to have both recommended MMR vaccine doses. They also advise exercising standard precautions like handwashing, masking and staying home when ill.
Continued collaboration between state health agencies and community partners will remain vital for robust tracking and swift outbreak response during this new era of global health threats.
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