Unvaccinated Student Possibly Exposes Thousands of San Franciscans to Measles

The entire universe in blog form
Feb. 19 2014 10:59 AM

Thousands of San Francisco Bay Area People Potentially Exposed to Measles

A measles virion (a single virus particle) via electron microscope. Measles is a highly contagious respiratory infection, and people living in San Francisco may have been exposed to it.

Photo by the CDC

Public health officials in Contra Costa County near San Francisco say a Berkeley student had measles when he rode the Bay Area Rapid Transit train, possibly exposing thousands of people to this contagious and dangerous virus.

He rode BART between Feb. 4 and 7, 2014, so anyone who rode at that time should be aware they may have been exposed. Symptoms take about one to three weeks after exposure to crop up and include fever, runny nose, red eyes, and coughing. A few days later the red rash appears, generally in the face before it spreads to the rest of the body. You can read more about measles at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.


People who are unvaccinated have a much higher risk of contracting it than people who are vaccinated. The young man, confirmed to have a case of measles, was unvaccinated and had recently traveled to Asia, where he may have contracted the disease. Measles had been wiped out natively in the U.S. by the 1990s, but local epidemics can be triggered when unvaccinated people travel to other countries. This has happened over and again here in America in the past few years, which is why measles cases tripled in 2013. Tripled.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

This new case is particularly worrisome to me because that area has lower vaccination rates than it should. Ironically, that’s generally the case for areas where people are more affluent and better educated (including parts of California and my own home of Boulder, Colo.); they hear anti-vax propaganda, look it up online, and find the nonsense spouted by the anti-vaxxers which in turn confirms their bias. But it’s not limited to that, and measles can pop up anywhere where anti-vax beliefs are common. Not all outbreaks can be linked to anti-vaxxers, but some definitely have been.

Measles is not a disease to screw around with. It is highly contagious and has lots of nasty complications. About a million people worldwide die from it every year. In the U.S. the vaccine is cheap and easy to get. And if it’s been a few years since you’ve had yours, you may need a booster. I got mine a couple of years ago. Talk to your board-certified doctor about it.

I’ll note that not much information about the Berkeley student was released, so we don’t know why he wasn’t vaccinated. Some people just don’t bother, some have objections based on religion, and of course some people have fallen for the dangerous medical misinformation of the anti-vaxxers.

Remember: When you get vaccinated, you are not just protecting you and yours. You’re also helping protect babies too young for their shots, older people, and people with compromised immunities (for example, those who are on immunosuppressants for cancer or arthritis treatment). Herd immunity is real, and important

People like Jenny McCarthy, Andrew Wakefield, RFK Jr., NVIC, and the AVN are wrong. Vaccines don’t cause autism, have very low risk, and have huge benefits. I hope this situation in San Francisco doesn’t turn into an outbreak because that could be very nasty indeed. We’ve seen it happen too many times before, and it’s the legacy of those people above and others who spread anti-vax nonsense.

If you live in the San Francisco area, please be on alert for the symptoms of measles, and if you see them, don’t take a chance. Call a doctor (a real doctor) and find out what you need to do.



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