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Chicago is a hotspot in the measles outbreak. Here's how to stay safe


Measles is on the march again in Chicago. Chicago's Department of Public Health counts 57 cases so far this year for just this week. There are nearly a hundred reported cases of measles across 18 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For comparison, the total in 2023 was 58. Allison Bartlett is a pediatrician who specializes in infectious diseases. She's also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago's medical school. Dr. Bartlett, thanks so much for being with us.

ALLISON BARTLETT: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Why do you think so many cases in Chicago?

BARTLETT: I think in Chicago, we have a pretty good handle on what's accounting for the majority of our cases, and they are related to new arrivals to the city of Chicago and the housing conditions that some of our migrant families are in and the vaccine status. The thing about measles vaccinations, that we usually give our children their first vaccine at the age of 1, so we always have a vulnerable population. So even if everyone around them is vaccinated, infants can be vulnerable. And they have been affected, primarily, in a lot of these cases.

SIMON: To make this clear, migrants who've arrived in Chicago might be the source of the measles cases now. But in past years, where there have been outbreaks, they could have been travelers getting off the plane at O'Hare, for example.

BARTLETT: That's absolutely the case. In fact, we have also had several cases - people who have traveled internationally, who've been under immunized, been exposed and come back and had the measles. I think what was unique here was the close quarters of the population that led to the spread, as opposed to the individual cases.

SIMON: Measles, of course, is just not as common as it used to be. I want to carefully introduce a clip. This is 1969, an episode of "The Brady Bunch."


BARRY WILLIAMS: (As Greg Brady) Boy, this is the life, isn't it?

MAUREEN MCCORMICK: (As Marcia Brady) Yeah. If you have to get sick, you sure can't beat the measles.

MIKE LOOKINLAND: (As Bobby Brady) That's right. No medicine.

WILLIAMS: (As Greg Brady) Inside or out - like shots, I mean.

SUSAN OLSEN: (As Cindy Brady) Don't even mention shots. Yuck.

BARTLETT: The part about the treatment for measles being nothing inside or out is absolutely correct. What measles is, is an illness that consists of several days of very high fever and feeling under the weather, cough, stuffy nose and red eyes. And after a few days of that, you develop a pretty impressive rash that starts on your face and neck and spreads down through the rest of the body. There is not much that we do to treat measles other than medication to relieve the fever. You know, for patients who get dehydrated, giving them IV fluids.

Measles used to be one of our common childhood febrile illnesses. But with the vaccine that was invented in 1963, we've had a steep decline, and many people have not had a case of measles. Generally, it's what we call self-limited, and people recover from it. But there is a significant percentage of people who can go on and have serious complications, even leading to death.

SIMON: I gather the CDC counted nearly 1,300 cases in 2019 and 667 in 2014. So how seriously should we take this?

BARTLETT: I think this is absolutely yet another very serious wake-up call. You know, this is a very, very preventable illness by vaccination. But it requires very high levels of individuals being vaccinated. So we think that we probably need about 95% of people vaccinated to reach our level of community immunity because of all of those other risk groups that will also exist - infants who are, by definition, unvaccinated and then individuals whose families choose to not vaccinate and then individuals whose immune systems are not working properly and they're, therefore, vulnerable for infection.

You know, I think the Chicago measles outbreak doesn't appear to have led to widespread community spread through vulnerable individuals outside of our shelter system at the moment. We've had exposures in schools and on community buses - fortunately, have not led to cases yet, but definitely at risk if we don't control the spread of measles.

SIMON: Allison Bartlett of the University of Chicago. Dr. Bartlett, thanks so much for being with us.

BARTLETT: Thank you for having me.


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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.