There's a measles outbreak in Florida. Should you change your travel plans?

The Manatee Bay Elementary School
The Manatee Bay Elementary School in Florida is at the center of a measles outbreak in the state, and raising concerns about whether it's safe to travel there for spring break. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images) (Miami Herald via Getty Images)

Florida state officials are facing criticism for the way a measles outbreak is being handled, raising questions about whether it's safe to travel to the state for spring break. The outbreak started in Broward County's Manatee Bay Elementary School, and there are now at least nine cases in the county, according to state data. One additional case has been reported in Polk County.

In a letter to parents, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo warned about how contagious measles is while noting that students who are vaccinated should be fine. But Ladapo didn't urge parents to vaccinate their children or to keep unvaccinated students home from school.

Measles is a highly contagious virus that causes a red rash and high fever. About one in five people in the U.S. who get measles are hospitalized, and one out of every 1,000 people with measles will develop brain swelling, which could lead to brain damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Measles can in some cases be fatal.

Florida isn't the only state that's experienced a measles outbreak this year. As of the end of February, 41 cases of the virus have been reported in 15 other states: Arizona, California, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington. There were 58 total cases of measles reported in the U.S. last year, CDC data shows.

Given that Florida is a popular spring break destination, questions are swirling on social media about whether it's safe to travel there right now. Infectious disease doctors break it down.

Is it still safe to visit Florida?

Doctors say it depends on your vaccination status and where you plan to go.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children get their first dose of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine between 12 and 15 months old, followed by a second shot between the ages of 4 and 6. One dose of the MMR vaccine is 93% effective against measles, while two doses is 97% effective against the virus, the CDC says.

That means that children under the age of 1 and people who are unvaccinated are the most susceptible, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "You need to be vaccinated," he says. "Measles is a very nasty infection. People don't realize that before we had the measles vaccine, 400 to 500 children died each year of the virus and its complications."

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't travel to Florida with young kids, Dr. Mark Kline, an infectious disease physician at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, tells Yahoo Life. "So far, Florida’s measles outbreak has involved relatively few children and has occurred in a geographically small area, so I don’t think there is any justification for advising against travel to Florida in general," he says.

How to protect your family from measles

Doctors say that what you do once you arrive in Florida is what matters. Again, children under the age of 1 and those who are unvaccinated are at the highest risk of getting sick. "For those particular special populations, special care is warranted, including avoidance of crowded indoor settings or exposure to individuals who are ill," Kline says.

If you plan to go to the beach, you'll likely be OK — provided you keep your distance from others and avoid those who are obviously sick, Dr. Karen Acker, pediatric infectious disease expert at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, tells Yahoo Life. "The risk of getting exposed to measles when going to an outdoor area is likely quite low, but not impossible, as measles droplets can travel in the air for long distances," she says.

Hotels may also present an issue for unvaccinated children and adults, given that measles droplets can hover in the air for up to two hours after an infected person leaves the area, Schaffner says.

Doctors say that popular theme parks like Disney World are the trickiest. "Big, crowded theme parks such as Disney World can be high-risk areas for measles exposure, so I would avoid places like these if there are nearby measles outbreaks, particularly if you are unvaccinated or immunocompromised," Acker says.

Schaffner points out that in late 2014 into 2015, a measles outbreak happened at Disneyland, in California, leading to 125 cases of the virus. CDC data show that at least 20% of those who were infected in the outbreak were hospitalized. Worth noting: 45% of the infected California residents were unvaccinated and 5% had one dose of the MMR vaccine.

While standard virus-prevention strategies like good hand hygiene may help lower your risk of getting measles a little, Schaffner says it's unlikely to do much. Similarly, wearing an N95 mask may also help lower your already low odds of getting measles if you've been vaccinated and want extra protection, Acker says.

Overall, doctors stress the importance of getting the MMR vaccine and making sure you're up to date with your shots. "The vaccine is highly effective," Dr. William Petri Jr., an infectious disease expert at UVA Health, tells Yahoo Life. "Vaccination is key."

But for children who are too young to get the vaccine, it's important to take special precautions. "Keep them away from crowds," Schaffner says.