In May 2016, I’d been feeling sick for a few days. My doctor diagnosed strep and sent me home with antibiotics. But this wasn’t like any strep I’d ever had before. My sore throat and fever kept getting worse, and I developed a rash on one of my arms. Then, one morning, I collapsed onto the floor of my apartment. The emergency room doctors took blood and ruled out strep, after all. Maybe it was scarlet fever? Then someone thought to ask: Were you vaccinated against measles? In my haze, I realized that I wasn’t sure. I texted my mother the question. She responded with a thumb’s-down emoji. Why?, she asked. I’m in the hospital, I wrote back.
Measles was like the worst flu I’d ever had, combined with the worst hangover I’d ever had. It flattened me. Mentally, I was disoriented. I’d gone to a teaching hospital, Northwestern Memorial in Chicago, so medical students would come to my bedside and ask if they could take photos of my rash, which had spread in pronounced, red blotches. None of them had ever seen this disease in person before: The United States had declared measles eliminated in 2000.
Once my temperature fell and blood oxygen levels rose, the hospital released me with strict instructions to stay home. But before I’d become ill, I’d gone to a tech conference in Las Vegas, with tens of thousands of attendees. I had no idea how many people I’d met, shaken hands with or brushed up against. Measles is so contagious that if one infected person is in a room, 90 percent of the unvaccinated people around him will also become infected. The live virus can linger in the air for two hours after a cough or sneeze.