Ind. Measles Outbreak, Linked to Super Bowl, Raises Vaccination Concerns

BY Allie Morris  February 20, 2012 at 5:08 PM EST


Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The crowds and teams may have long departed Indiana after Super Bowl XLVI, but something else has lingered: an outbreak of measles.

Two days before the big game, two people infected with the virus visited the Super Bowl Village together and made stops at a coffee shop, a restaurant and the Indianapolis Colts’ merchandise store in Lucas Oil Stadium.

State health officials confirmed 13 confirmed cases of measles within two neighboring counties in central Indiana last week. According to Dr. Gregory Larkin, the state’s health commissioner, those cases were confined to families in the same social group. A 14th case was diagnosed Friday in one of the same counties as the previous cases.

Larkin said he’s not expecting the number of cases to rise dramatically. However, given the virus’ incubation period averages between 10 to 12 days and hundreds of thousands may have been exposed, Larkin said it’s still possible more cases may be diagnosed. Indiana health officials have been communicating with their counterparts in New York and Massachusetts, the home states of the two Super Bowl teams, anticipating the virus could have traveled home with returning fans.

But Larkin said even if the numbers stay where they are, there’s a wider lesson to all of this. “This is just so highly infectious and so significantly preventable,” he said.

When administered, the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine can be 95 percent effective. In part due to high vaccinations rates in the United States, ongoing transmission of the endemic measles virus was declared eliminated in the country in 2000. But it can still easily spread in pockets of unvaccinated people. Most measles cases in the U.S. can be traced to unvaccinated travelers who vacation abroad, become infected and carry the disease home.

According to Larkin, the first 13 individuals infected had all chosen not to be vaccinated.

Although some 90 percent of Americans are immunized, last year more than 200 cases — the highest number since 1996 — of the measles were reported in the U.S. The increase can be linked to a recent spike of measles cases in Western Europe, according to Dr. Greg Wallace of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“At a sporting event like the Super Bowl, you are going to have a whole mix of different people gathering,” said Dr. William Moss of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Where it’s more homogeneous with vaccination coverage, or lack of coverage, is where you are going to have the larger outbreaks.”

This outbreak isn’t the first time measles has spread after a big sporting event. Foreign visitors were blamed for a large measles outbreak following the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. A smaller outbreak that occurred after the 2007 Little League World Series in Pennsylvania was traced to a Japanese player.

As global sporting events like the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil approach, infectious disease experts say there’s little that can be done to prevent a reprise.

“It’s very difficult, if not impossible for public health officials to regulate that type of thing,” Moss said. “It comes back to the question of how do people protect themselves. It’s relatively simple: They need to be vaccinated with the measles vaccine.”