Not Just for Kids Anymore: Measles Hit Dartmouth

Imagine if Harvard were quarantined with more than 50 students, staff, and administrators in the hospital and its sports teams barred from contact with other schools so as not to spread the measles.

Laugh. It happened at Dartmouth.

"We can have it [the measles] by ourselves because we are so far off in the woods," says Josie Harper, coach of a Dartmouth's women's lacrosse team that had to cancel its championship match for fear of spreading a disease.

But if you have sore, red eyes, a runny nose, headaches, fevers, and then red spots, be careful, because you might be the latest victim of a measles epidemic that has been sweeping college campuses and high schools across the country.

Rubeola, the old-fashioned, red, hard measles, is no longer just a disease that only small children contract. In the past couple of years, doctors have discovered that the age of measles victims has risen significantly. In fact, most recent measles sufferers are between 26 and 17.

"Measles has attacked a whole age group across the country," says Dr. John H. Turco, director of Dix House, the college's health facilities. Turco adds that judging by what Dartmouth has seen, the rising threat of measles "could be a warning to colleges across the country."

Earlier this month, Dartmouth experienced such a severe measles outbreak that officials at the New Hampshire Board of Public Health attempted to quarantine the entire state in order to prevent the epidemic from spreading.

"The Division of Public Health recommended that Dartmouth students not leave the state," says Marsh E. Jones, a Dartmouth spokesman. "They have also advised that all those susceptible to the disease not enter Hanover," she adds.

This is the second measles epidemic at Dartmouth in the past three years. According to Jones, the most recent outbreak is spreading faster than any of the school's past epidemics.

The first case of measles, discovered on April 14, was brought to Dartmouth by a student returning from vacation in Florida, Turco says. By May 1, the school had documented 52 cases of measles among students, employees, and Hanover residents.

The sudden onset of the virus forced Dartmouth officials to cancel many school functions and sporting events, including the women's lacrosse Ivy League Championship between Dartmouth and Harvard.

Originally scheduled to take place in Cambridge, the championship match was postponed and later cancelled for fear that the virus would spread.

"It was a joint decision between the New Hampshire Health Department and our athletic department not to hold the game," Harper says.

In spite of these cancellations, Harvard recently sent its men's baseball and lacrosse teams to play at Dartmouth. In order to avoid contamination of Harvard students, all athletes with circumspect medical records were given the measles vaccine.

"We innoculated all those who hadn't had solid evidence that they were previously given the vaccine," says Dr. Sholem Postel, acting director of Harvard University Health Services. Postel adds, however, that "Dartmouth innoculated its teams across the board."

According to Postel, Harvard did not fear that its athletic teams would acquire the contagious disease because measles is difficult to contract in the open environment of a sports field. But Harvard took no chances and limited interaction with the Dartmouth teams in order to remove the athletes from the infected environment as quickly as possible.

"Because measles is a droplet infection, it mostly occurs in closed environments when little micro-droplets from breathing are carried along by dust or particles from hair spray," says Postel.

But measles has proven to be far from just a secluded disease. Boston University had a measles epidemic three years ago which even managed to spread to MIT. Phillips Exeter Acadamy also suffered through a measles epidemic last January which sent 38 students to its Health Services.

"With the current level of international travel, our students are exposed to many different environments," says Joyce C. Kennedy, practicing nurse for Phillips Exeter. Kennedy adds "there's no way measles can be contained anymore."

According to Kennedy, Phillips Exeter had cases which exhibited a variety of differing symptoms. The symptoms ranged from small local rashes which lasted only six or seven hours, to more severe cases where the students had temperatures of 103 degrees for several days.

Measles does pose a serious threat to those with health problems, says Kennedy. "But we don't have a high risk population here at Exeter, else we would not have been so fortunate," she adds.

Innoculation for measles generally takes place when a child reaches 15 months. The child is injected with a small dosage of the live measles vaccine so that he will develop antibodies to fight the disease in the future.

Doctors administer a measles, mumps, and rubella shot which until recently was widely believed to permanently immunize patients from all three diseases. Yet repeated occurences of measles epidemics have created a lack of faith in the immunization process.

"Evidence has shown that there is a waning level of immunity to measles among college students due to decreasing antibody levels," Turco says.

Turco performed examinations on the Dartmouth men's track team last month before a trip to Yale and discovered that 25 of the 66 runners had no antibodies for measles.

"And these were people with good medical records," Turco says.

Past measles epidemics at Boston University and other schools have traditionally been blamed on faulty file keeping and lazy supervision of records. But Turco says that Dartmouth records give evidence to the fact that even those who have been previously innoculated still came down with the disease.

According to Turco, the solution to the problem of the spreading measles epidemic is more frequent innoculations. Other college communities have debated adopting this solution.

"We are keeping Dr. Turco's theory of waning immunity levels under consideration," Postel says. He adds, "Harvard is waiting to get official word on whether or not this is a real thing before we do anything about it."

Harvard currently has a very strict policy toward student medical records. All entering freshman must show evidence of innoculation before they are allowed to register for classes.

"The reason why we have such a strict policy is because the state legislates it," Postel says. "We've never had anything in place as firm as it is now under Massachusetts law."

New Hampshire law also enforces proper innoculation before students are allowed to register for classes, but there are ways to get around the law. Two of the measles victims at Phillips Exeter were not given the vaccine because of their religious beliefs.

Even though measles is currently very widespread, many officials do express hope for ending the epidemic.

"One of the big problems with the epidemic is that most of the people taking care of students have never even seen measles before," Kennedy says. "But solving this problem with measles will only be a matter of time."