How to Protect Your Family During Infectious Disease Outbreaks

An expert provides tips on vaccinations, boosters, hygiene practices and more

An internal medicine physician at Scripps Health in San Diego offers tips on preventing the spread of diseases such as the flu and whooping cough.

When outbreaks of contagious illnesses and diseases occur — including some that haven’t been seen in many years —you may wonder how to protect yourself and your family. Mark Shalauta, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic and immunization expert, has advice for those who are concerned.

Measles

“For measles, prevention is easy; get the vaccine,” says Dr. Shalauta. Measles was officially declared eradicated from the United States in 2000. But a rise in people opting out of the vaccine, there are pools of people among whom it can spread easily. It’s not surprising that one infected person at a very densely populated place like Disneyland has resulted in a widespread, multistate outbreak, according to Dr. Shalauta. The vaccine is extremely effective in preventing the illness — just one dose gives a person up to 95 percent immunity.

Pertussis

Also called whooping cough, pertussis is a more complicated illness. Its resurgence in recent years is not as directly related to vaccine refusal as it is to a change in the type of vaccine most commonly given. Dr. Shalauta explains the older formulation (whole cell), given through the 1990s, was associated with safety concerns that ultimately led to the development of a newer, “acellular” vaccine for the disease. But a study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2013 suggests this newer form of the vaccine was less effective in preventing whooping cough than the older formulation.


“The main group we’re concerned about when it comes to whooping cough exposure is infants,” says Dr. Shalauta. “Rates of hospitalization are high if an infant is exposed, and there’s even the potential for death.” Since infants don’t receive their first whooping cough vaccine until about 2 months of age, it’s important that all those around them are immunized.

Flu

Because flu viruses are constantly changing, influenza vaccination poses a challenge for vaccine makers. In 2015, H3N2, the main strain that’s making people sick, has mutated since the vaccine was produced, making the vaccine much less effective. So many people are getting ill even if they got their shots as recommended. Still, Dr. Shaluata advises getting vaccinated. This season, the flu shot is ten 10 – 25 percent effective, which is better than nothing, especially for people who have asthma, are pregnant or elderly. In addition, he emphasizes that people who are ill with flu-like symptoms stay home and not take the risk of spreading the illness. Don’t tough it out and go to work; cover your cough; and if you go to a health care provider, ask for a mask at the sign-in area to protect other patients.

Boosters

Dr. Shalauta recommends adults get a Tdap (tetanus/diphtheria/acellular pertussis) booster, which covers tetanus and whooping cough, and subsequent Td (tetanus/diphtheria) boosters every 10 years, per the CDC recommended schedule. Finally, he recommends getting the flu shot every year. While he points out the vaccine may not perfectly align with every virus that is most common every year, it is still better than having no protection at all.