Video: Everything you need to know about Minnesota's measles outbreak

What exactly is measles, how can you protect yourself, and why is everyone talking about it?

Measles is generally pretty rare in the United States. But so far this year, there have been 34 measles cases in Minnesota alone – that's the most since 1990 when there were 460 confirmed cases, the Minnesota Department of Health told GoMN.

But what exactly is measles, how can you protect yourself, and why is everyone talking about it?

Here's what you need to know about the recent measles outbreak.

What is measles?

Measles is a very contagious virus that mostly affects a person's nose and throat, and it can be deadly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus lives in a sick person's mucus. It can be spread through things like coughing and sneezing.

And if a contaminated person sneezes, the measles virus can live in the air for up to two hours. So anyone who walks through that area will be exposed to the virus.

Symptoms tend to begin one to two weeks after being exposed. Usually it starts with a high fever, cough, runny nose, and red, watery eyes. Then a few days later, a bunch of small red bumps will start popping up and fever can spike to more than 104 degrees.

The history of measles

The disease goes way back to the ninth century when a Persian doctor documented it, the CDC says.

It wasn't until 1912 that the U.S. recognized and started keeping track of the disease. At that time, there were about 6,000 measles-related deaths every year in the U.S.

By the 1950s, there were 3-4 million cases every year. It was so common that most kids had contracted it by age 15.

In the '60s, a vaccine was developed – we still use that vaccine in children today, usually along with mumps and rubella vaccines.

By 2000, the U.S. had declared measles eliminated. That doesn't mean the disease was completely wiped out in the U.S., but that it was no longer being transmitted here.

Now Minnesota usually only sees two or three cases a year.

About the vaccine

Kids typically get two shots now – one after their first birthday and the second before starting kindergarten. That's actually required before kids can go to school in Minnesota.

If you didn't get vaccinated as a kid, it's recommended that you do as an adult. Unless you were born before 1957 – then it's assumed that you're already immune because you've likely been in contact with the disease.

Experts say the vaccine is 97 percent effective after you've had two doses, and you don't need to get any booster shots after that.

Not everyone gets vaccinated, though.

Officials with the Minnesota Department of Health say schools can make exemptions if kids can't get vaccines for medical reasons. Parents can also file for an exemption. The Department of Health says sometimes that's for religious reasons, sometimes it's because parents are afraid vaccines are not safe.

A fairly common belief is that there's a link between vaccines and autism – however, health officials say there's not evidence to support that. The Department of Health says the idea came about in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield, a British physician, published a report that claimed the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism and bowel disease.

However, an investigation found a bunch of things wrong with his report, so it was retracted and officials suspended his medical license.

So why is there an outbreak now?

While measles was eliminated in 2000, other countries still have it. So when people travel from other counties to the U.S.,, they can bring it back here.

This time around, the outbreak mostly involves Somali Minnesotans. They tend to have a lower vaccination rate than the general population. That’s due to misinformation about vaccine risks, Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said last month, noting health officials are working with the Somali community to fight the measles outbreak.

Last month the CDC put out measles alerts for those traveling to Germany, Italy, and Belgium.

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