Fever. Dry cough. Inflamed eyes. Large rashes. Bronchitis. Laryngitis. Death.
These are some of the symptoms and possible side effects of measles, a highly contagious disease making a comeback in the United States. As of June 13, there have been 1,044 cases reported in the U.S. this year, up from 372 in all of 2018.
Measles is preventable with a vaccine, but myths about the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine’s effects have caused an increase in the number of unvaccinated children. Austin is especially at risk, ranking as a national “hotspot” for vaccine exemptions.
Proximity to unvaccinated individuals, a close-knit community and a large number of student travellers are all factors that put UT at risk for a measles outbreak. For students’ safety, UT should require the MMR vaccine for all incoming students, except those with medical exemptions.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “students at post-high school educational institutions ... need two doses of MMR vaccine.” Many public universities across the country, including UC Berkeley, UVA and UNC, require the immunizations.
UT, however, discontinued its requirement in 2009.
“At that time, our level of students who came to UT already vaccinated with MMR was very high,” said Melinda McMichael, interim executive director for University Health Services. “We’re always looking at things that are in the best interest of students, and the decision was made at that time to no longer require MMR.”
Communities need a high percentage of vaccinated individuals to achieve herd immunity. When enough people are protected from a disease, the disease has a very low risk of spreading. Herd immunity protects those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, such as an immune disorder, from catching the disease. Without it, these communities are at risk of outbreak.
“Measles is very, very infectious, and that’s why this herd immunity level is as high as 95%,” said Sahotra Sarkar, professor of philosophy and integrative biology. “If the vaccination rate at UT is not at least 95%, we are at a very serious risk.”
UT doesn’t collect data on the percentage of students immunized against measles, so there’s no way of knowing if 95% of the UT student body has the MMR vaccine. However, there is a clear solution: require the currently recommended two doses of the MMR vaccine for all incoming students.
UT currently requires the MMR vaccine for international students as measles is still prevalent in other countries, but this requirement does not cover the thousands of students who study abroad each year. Requiring the vaccine will ensure all students, no matter where they come from or travel to, are protected from the disease.
“Europe is undergoing a measles crisis that is far, far worse than ours, and a lot of our study abroad people like to go to Europe,” Sarkar said. “They will very likely bring measles back if they’re not vaccinated.”
Once measles is introduced to a community, it can spread rapidly before the infected person even knows they have the disease.
“You’re often in classrooms, or in gyms, or all of us together,” Sarkar said. “Measles is airborne, so somebody can expose everybody else in the same classroom to the virus.”
A high number of unvaccinated individuals in Austin, an increase in measles cases and the risks associated with international travel and communal living make UT a prime breeding ground for the measles virus.
“We’re always evaluating our programs and services and what is in the best interests of the health of our students,” McMichael said. “We’re looking at this issue in addition to many others this year.”
UT students can visit the Allergy, Immunization, and Travel Clinic in the Student Services Building to get the recommended two doses of MMR. Costs may vary based on insurance. Students can also go to the University Health Services website to learn more about the vaccines offered.
When it comes to student health, it’s better to be safe than sorry. To maintain herd immunity and students’ safety, UT should again require two doses of MMR vaccine for all incoming students.
Springs is a government sophomore from Dallas.