California health officials are warning that thousands of state residents were potentially exposed to measles after an unvaccinated individual commuted on Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, during rush hour. BART is the fifth most used public transportation system in the country, transporting about 400,000 riders each workday.
The man in question is a college student who likely contracted measles during a recent trip to Asia. The virus, which can remain in the air for up to two hours, was probably present on trains that moved throughout the Bay Area.
Last Thursday, officials issued a health alert warning the commuters who rode BART in between February 7 and February 10 that they could have come in contact with the virus. They also contacted the students at the University of California, Berkeley who may have shared classrooms with the infected individual, and the university ordered 300 shots of the MMR vaccine in case other students still need to receive it.
“Measles is a serious, highly contagious disease,” Dr. Janet Berreman, the health officer for the city of Berkeley, said in a statement. “It spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Fortunately, the measles vaccine is highly effective in preventing infection.”
Thanks to the MMR vaccine, the U.S. virtually eradicated measles back in 2000. But small pockets of unvaccinated people are allowing the disease to spread again. Last year, the country saw a dramatic uptick of measles cases — and 80 percent of those infections occurred among people who hadn’t received an inoculation for the contagious disease. Indeed, thanks to persistent anti-vaccine beliefs that are often rooted in the myth that the MMR shot can cause autism, the country is experiencing a resurgence of measles and whooping cough.
Nonetheless, state legislatures continue to propose bills that would make it easier for parents to opt their kids out of their recommended vaccines. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 36 different bills were introduced between 2009 and 2012 to change school immunization requirements — and the vast majority of them would have allowed parents to claim a “philosophical exemption” to vaccine requirements. None of them passed, but vaccine exemption policies still vary widely between states. In some places, parents can send their kids to school without getting their shots after simply signing a form.
Fortunately, the recent measles scare in California is also a reminder that vaccines are highly effective preventative tools. Although health officials continue to closely monitor the situation, there haven’t been any outbreaks so far. Vicky Balladares, a spokeswoman for Contra Costa Health Services, told Healthline that’s because a high percentage of Bay Area residents have already been vaccinated.
Overall, measles cases in the state have been on the rise, and California-area physicians are still being urged to report potential symptoms as soon as possible.