Travelers at Midway Airport one night last week may have been exposed to measles, health officials say

A screen grab from a Denver International Airport video showing the talking gargoyle startling passengers at the airport. The latest addition helps celebrate the airport's 24th birthday on Feb. 28, 2019.
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Travelers passing through Midway International Airport one night late last week and people who visited a west suburban hospital for a few hours on Sunday may have been exposed to measles, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Most people are vaccinated for the disease in childhood, but those who have not been vaccinated are at higher risk of catching the highly contagious and potentially life-threatening disease.

An Illinois resident who was unvaccinated and infectious arrived in Concourse B of the Chicago airport on Feb. 22, the state health department said in a Thursday news release. People in the airport between 9 p.m. and midnight on Feb. 22 may have been exposed to the disease, the department said.

Measles is spread through the air when someone coughs or sneezes and can also spread through contact with mucus or saliva from an infected person, according to the health department.

Two days after the infected person was at Midway, the person sought treatment in the emergency department at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in west suburban Geneva. Those who were in the emergency department Sunday between 11:45 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. also may have been exposed, according to the news release, as well as individuals who were in the hospital from 4 to 6:15 p.m. on Sunday and from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday.

The state health department and local health officials are investigating the case, according to the news release. No other public locations are known where exposure occurred, and local health departments are working to notify Illinois residents who may have been exposed on the person’s flights, according to the news release.

Those infected by measles may not develop symptoms for weeks. Symptoms like rash, high fever, cough, runny nose and red, watery eyes could develop as late as March 20, according to IDPH. Serious complications like pneumonia and swelling of the brain can follow.

The state health department recommends contacting a health care provider before going in person to see a health care professional, to make plans for an evaluation that keeps other patients and medical staff from becoming infected.

“Measles is highly contagious,” said state health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike in the release. “However, two doses of measles vaccine are about 97 percent effective in preventing measles. We urge everyone to make sure they and their family members are up-to-date on measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine and all other age-appropriate immunizations, especially if you are traveling to other countries where measles is regularly found. Getting vaccinated not only protects you, it protects others around you who are too young to get the vaccine or cannot receive it for medical reasons.”

The U.S. has counted more measles cases in the first two months of this year than in all of 2017 — and part of the rising threat is misinformation that makes some parents balk at a crucial vaccine, federal health officials told Congress on Wednesday.

Yet the vaccine is hugely effective and very safe — so the rise of measles cases “is really unacceptable,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health.

The disease was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, which means it was not being spread domestically. But cases have been rising in recent years, and 2019 is shaping up to be a bad one.

Dr. Robert Murphy, a Northwestern University expert on infectious disease, said immunization requirements need to be tightened.

“This is going to keep happening until they change the law,” said Murphy, in a statement released Friday. “They can’t let these people stay unvaccinated.”

Republican and Democratic lawmakers at a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing bemoaned what’s called “vaccine hesitancy,” meaning when people refuse or delay vaccinations.

“These outbreaks are tragic since they’re completely avoidable,” said Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky.

“This is a public health problem for which science has already provided a solution,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

More information about measles can be found on the state health department’s website.

The Associated Press contributed.

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