The U.S. is experiencing a measles outbreak that has reported 940 cases in 26 states so far. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since measles was eliminated in 2000 through successful vaccination. Because of the outbreak, physicians and educators are encouraging others to get vaccinated and become informed about the virus. JMU health sciences professor Audrey Burnett studies infectious diseases and advocates for education and vaccination for diseases like the measles virus.
Burnett earned both her Masters degree in gerontology and her Ph.D. in health promotion at Virginia Tech, where she has also served as a clinical instructor for health promotion. She also found work as a research liaison with the New River Valley Health District before eventually coming to work as a professor at JMU in 2009.
“I think it’s really important to spread awareness in terms of prevention and control of infectious diseases because we do have those measures in place to keep us safe,” Burnett said. “Because I teach infectious disease in the health sciences department, I think in a way I’m promoting awareness just through my students.”
Burnett has conducted various research studies throughout her career, including a health needs assessment of the New River Valley Health District, which encompassed questions pertaining to infectious disease prevention, control efforts and vaccination rates. She has also examined college students’ perceptions of and motivations to be tested for HIV.
The MMR vaccine incorporates measles, mumps and rubella, and is required for most students of post-high school institutions. However, in March 2018 JMU experienced a mumps outbreak that affected about 20 students. Burnett has found that a small percentage of students aren’t vaccinated because of various theological, philosophical and medical reasons.
Measles is a viral disease that spreads through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing. Symptoms begin as cold-like, and eventually turn into white lesions in the mouth that are accompanied by a rash.
JMU’s University Health Center worked closely with the Public Health Department to address the mumps outbreak in 2018. UHC Medical Director Andy Guertler believes that the rise of these infectious diseases is due largely because of the recent growth of the anti-vaccination movement.
“The anti-vaccination push has been a somewhat recent phenomenon due to safety concerns about vaccines,” Guertler said. “These concerns are not valid. Multiple large studies have shown and verified the safety of the vaccines used in the U.S.”
Guertler said the recommended two-dose measles vaccine is 98% effective, whereas the mumps vaccine is 88% effective. Burnett and Guertler emphasized that the more people in an area who are vaccinated, the more herd immunity that community will experience, so the small percentage of those who are unvaccinated will be protected.
The MMR vaccine is usually given to a child between 12-15 months old, and again at five years old. However, JMU health sciences professor Gail Brook Arthur has observed possible defective immunity several years after vaccination, which makes measles a greater threat.
“Absolutely JMU students are at risk for measles,” Brook Arthur said. “What we’re finding is that for some people, the immunity wears off after about 10-20 years. Because of the mumps outbreak, I would worry that there could also be a measles outbreak.”
According to Brook Arthur, Virginia allows both religious and personal exemptions from the MMR vaccine, which makes the community vulnerable to the measles, mumps and rubella. However, no cases of measles have appeared in Virginia during this year’s outbreak.
“Is it a huge risk, will we see this epidemic happening at JMU?” Burnett said. “Maybe not, but I still think it’s important to understand that there are protective measures that are in place to prevent such a case. The closest case recently has been in Maryland, so it’s not very far from JMU, so we are at risk, but I certainly wouldn’t want to spread panic and fear unnecessarily.”
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