Leaving Santa Barbara in 2008 to join Doctors Without Borders in a war zone in sub-Saharan Africa, I was expecting to encounter measles (a known complication of war, poverty, famine and displaced populations). I did see measles. Hundreds of cases.

Dr. Jason Prystowsky

Dr. Jason Prystowsky

I never ever thought I would see this disease in my own community. As of June 5, according to the California Department of Public Health, there have been 51 reported cases of measles in our state, and now two cases in Santa Barbara County.

Measles is contagious. Measles is more contagious than HIV, Ebola or the common cold. If someone with measles coughs or sneezes, the virus lingers in the air for about two hours.

If someone who is unvaccinated breathes measles-exposed air, there is a 90 percent chance they will contract it. It is that contagious.

Kids with measles are sick. Some of you may hear stories, “I had measles as a kid, and I am fine.”

Ask any pediatrician who practiced medicine before vaccines. Kids with measles get a frighteningly high fever, persistently greater than 103 degrees, with low energy and no appetite. They get a bad cough, horrible “pink eye” (conjunctivitis) and runny nose.

About two to four days after the fever, the rash erupts. It usually starts on the face, then moves downward involving the trunk, arms, hands and legs. The rash is the mark of the disease.

Measles is a virus. Antibiotics do not work. There is no cure. No quick fix. Children with measles suffer, and it can be hard to watch.

Measles infection can have complications. Most of the time, children resiliently recover back to normal. But not always.

One in four children who contract measles will be hospitalized. People at highest risk for complications are pregnant women, those with a weakened immune system (people with HIV, receiving chemotherapy for cancer, and/or those who are immune suppressed because of organ transplant or autoimmune disease), the elderly and infants.

One in 20 patients will develop pneumonia. One out of every 1,000 will get inflammation and swelling in the brain (encephalitis) … one of the worst complications. If patients recover from encephalitis, they will likely have permanent deafness and intellectual disability.

Dr. Jason Prystowsky treating a child in South Sudan.

Dr. Jason Prystowsky, seen here treating a child in southern Sudan, warns parents about the dangers of not immunizing their children against measles. The current nationwide outbreak includes at least two cases in Santa Barbara County. (Prystowsky family photo)

Measles in pregnant women can cause premature labor or stillbirth. These complications can be deadly.

In short, measles is bad. It is contagious. It causes people to suffer. It has dangerous complications.

The measles vaccine is safe. Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR) is associated with some side effects … fever in 15 percent, rash 5 percent, joint pain 0.5 percent, low platelets 0.0003 percent, severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) less than 0.0001 percent. My own son developed a fever after his MMR, and I get it, this is hard to watch.

A night of fever controlled with Tylenol is a small price to pay for a lifetime of immunity.

Because of the measles vaccine introduced in 1963, it was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000.

In 1998, British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield published a research study in the journal The Lancet, looking at only 12 children, and he concluded that there was a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. This bad science went viral.

FYI, just last month the Annals of Internal Medicine published a study looking at more than 650,000 children showing no association between MMR and autism.

The Lancet retracted Wakefield’s study in 2010, and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom.

Autism is on the rise, and there are a lot of unknowns about it. We can confidently say vaccines are not correlated with autism.

We live in an era in which Internet searches can yield almost anything you are looking for. Be mindful where your information is coming from. It is easy to find a YouTube video or website claiming just about anything — the world is flat, Elvis is alive, Bigfoot exists.

Stick with evidence supported, peer reviewed science.

Become informed. If you are a parent, like me, you want to be informed about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines from reliable sources. The cost of misinformation could be grave. My three favorite resources on vaccine safety and effectiveness that I regularly share with parents, friends, and patients are as follows:

» Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

» American Academy of Pediatrics

» Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia vaccine resource

Too many Americans are opting out of vaccines, and now those who are unable to get vaccines are vulnerable; we have lost our herd immunity. Participating in a healthy community means we must all do our part to keep our community safe.

Infants (under 12 months), pregnant women, people with organ transplants or on immune-suppressing medications are unable to be vaccinated. When you and your family are immunized, you help protect those who could not be immunized.

Please reach out to your pediatrician and providers. Ask them about a vaccine schedule that will keep your child and our community healthy.

Physicians and moms agree, we all want healthy, safe children. This is not a conspiracy with big pharma. Vaccines are safe. Please vaccinate. Measles is here.

Please consider calling your pediatrician or the public health department before calling 9-1-1 if you think you or your child has measles.

Click here for more information from the Santa Barbra County Public Health Department.

Stay healthy, my friends.

Jason Prystowsky M.D., MPH, is an emergency physician at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, is medical director at Doctors Without Walls-Santa Barbara Street Medicine, medical director of the Santa Barbara Fire Department, and academic coordinator for the Medical Humanities Initiative at UC Santa Barbara. The opinions expressed are his own.