The United States is in the middle of the worst measles outbreak in decades. As of April 29, there have been 704 individual cases of measles in 22 states reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 500 of those cases are in people who have never been vaccinated against the disease. The governor of Washington state and the mayor of New York City have declared separate states of emergency; in New York, unvaccinated residents in a community in Brooklyn were required to receive the measles vaccine or not go to public places.

Fortunately, there have been no reported cases of measles in Arkansas this year. Most measles outbreaks in this country begin with travelers contracting the disease abroad and returning home. The virus tends to flare up in this country among groups whose vaccination rates are low. Arkansas is at a lower risk for the disease due to the low rate of international travel to the state. In addition, the state is in the upper half nationwide for MMR vaccination rates in children ages 19 and 35 months. Still, the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) is monitoring the situation closely.

“I am very, very concerned about the increasing number of measles cases in the United States,” said Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, medical director for immunizations at ADH. “Measles is so highly contagious that we could easily see it imported into Arkansas. Fortunately, the MMR vaccine is safe, and two doses are highly effective in completely preventing the measles. People in Arkansas are recognizing the dangers of this horrible disease and making sure that their children are protected.”

Dillaha noted that Arkansas’ MMR vaccination rate improved significantly from 2014 to 2017, but also said that the current rate is still not enough to prevent an outbreak. The measles virus is able to survive in the air up to two hours after an infected person coughs or sneezes. In fact, the CDC estimates that the virus will spread from an infected person to as many as 90 percent of people that person comes in contact with.

As Dillaha observed, the best defense against the measles is vaccination. The measles vaccine is 97 percent effective, and those who are immunized and still contract measles are more likely to have a milder illness. The vaccine is part of the MMR immunization and is given in two doses: once between ages 12–15 months, and again between ages 4–6 years. There is no need for a booster; the CDC considers a patient protected for life after receiving the two vaccines on schedule. Unvaccinated adults who do not have evidence of immunity should receive at least one dose of the MMR vaccine.