Georgia health officials confirmed the state’s first case of measles since 2020 on Thursday, sounding the alarm on declining childhood vaccination rates. The highly contagious viral infection was detected in a metro Atlanta resident, indicating community transmission is likely underway.
First Georgia Measles Case In 4 Years Sparks Concern
The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) reported the state’s first confirmed case of measles since 2020. The infected individual lives in metro Atlanta, according to health officials. While additional details were not provided, the case demonstrates that measles continues to pose a public health risk as vaccination rates decline nationwide.
“Measles is extremely contagious and can spread quickly among unvaccinated people,” said Kathleen E. Toomey, M.D., M.P.H., DPH commissioner. “The best way to protect yourself against measles is to get vaccinated.” 
Prior to this case, the last confirmed measles infection in Georgia was in April 2020. The latest report is concerning since measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000 thanks to widespread immunization.
Metro Atlanta Community Transmission Likely Starting
Public health experts believe the identified case indicates that community transmission of measles is probably underway in metro Atlanta.
“Because measles is highly contagious, we expect additional exposures and cases,” said Dr. Toomey. 
Once an unvaccinated individual becomes infected, up to 90% of close contacts who are also unimmunized may develop measles, according to the DPH.
Given how rapidly the virus spreads among vulnerable groups, contact tracing and monitoring of suspected exposures from this index case will be crucial in containing further spread. Health providers are being urged to isolate and report any suspected measles patients immediately to limit the outbreak.
Measles Symptoms And Prevention
Measles typically begins with a high fever, cough, runny nose, and red watery eyes which last for a few days prior to the iconic rash. The rash usually starts on the face and upper neck, eventually spreading downwards to the hands and feet.
“The rash can last for up to a week and the infected person can spread measles for four days before and after the rash appears,” DPH Epidemiologist Cherie Drenzek said. 
In rare cases, measles can lead to pneumonia, brain swelling and even death. Young children under 5 years old and immunocompromised persons are at highest risk of severe complications.
The MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine is the best prevention against infection. Two properly spaced doses are over 97% effective at preventing measles and lifelong immunity. Children should receive their first dose at 12-15 months of age and a second dose prior to entering school. Adults born after 1957 who haven’t been vaccinated should get at least one MMR dose, with international travelers recommended receiving two doses.
Falling Vaccination Rates Set Stage For Outbreaks
While measles vaccination played a key role in near elimination in the US, rates have been declining over the past decade.
Less than 93% of Georgia kindergarteners were vaccinated for MMR in the 2020-2021 school year, dropping below the necessary threshold to maintain herd immunity according to state data. 
“Even small drops in vaccination coverage can result in outbreaks,” Rekha Lakshmanan, director of advocacy and public policy at The Immunization Partnership said. “This first case of measles in our state since the start of the pandemic is a reminder that we simply cannot let down our guard.” 
Research indicates vaccine hesitancy stemming from misinformation as well as barriers accessing healthcare have driven declines. Restoring confidence in immunizations will play a pivotal role in preventing future outbreaks experts state.
|MMR Vaccination Rate
Georgia Kindergarten MMR Vaccination Rates 2016-2021 showing concerning downward trend
Potential Measles Resurgence Without Action
Health officials worry measles outbreaks could grow across Georgia without interventions to improve vaccination uptake. Though declared eliminated in the US over 20 years ago, cases have been rising nationally in recent years.
“Progress in fighting vaccine-preventable diseases over the past two decades is eroding, setting the stage for potential disease resurgences and outbreaks,” said Mary Beth Kurilo, Senior Director of Health Science and Regulatory Advocacy at PhRMA 
In 2019, the US suffered it’s worst year for measles in a quarter century, with major outbreaks in undervaccinated communities. Over 60,000 cases and hundreds of measles deaths have been reported globally so far in 2023.
Without urgent work improving vaccination rates, especially among children, experts worry once eliminated diseases could regain endemic status across Georgia and the nation at large. Sustained public education and policy efforts will likely be needed to increase immunization uptake and prevent this alarming scenario public health leaders conclude.
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