Military members and veterans who have not been vaccinated against the measles could not be paid by the Department of Defense, the secretary of defense said Monday, adding to a growing list of federal agencies that are imposing measures against the highly contagious disease.
In a statement that followed an online question and answer session with troops by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, officials said the Pentagon “will not pay for medical, vaccines or medical screenings required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding measles” if those were not paid before a state or local official requires them to be vaccinated.
Military members and veterans who have not been vaccinated against measles would not be denied payment if they did not choose to get vaccinated during that time, but those individuals would not receive payment for vaccinations, the statement said.
Veterans in the Guard also would be exempt from having to get vaccinations if their state or local officials mandate such vaccinations as part of the active-duty force.
The announcement came as several reports have been published detailing the spread of the highly contagious disease, which for most people is associated with an acute illness that leaves a person with a rash and starts with fever. The disease, however, is highly dangerous to children and other vulnerable individuals, and the prolonged symptoms can remain for several weeks and cause serious complications, including encephalitis and pneumonia.
Army Secretary Mark Esper and Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow, deputy chief of staff for public affairs, also issued statements Tuesday warning soldiers about measles, which can occur in an outbreak that can last several months.
Snow warned troops that people can become infected from a foreign country with whom they travel for the purposes of visiting military installations or civilian areas to work, attend school or visit relatives. He called measles “the number one communicable disease you can get when visiting a foreign country.”
“If you have not received two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, it is imperative that you seek medical attention, including a medical checkup, if you are feeling anything less than 100 percent,” Esper wrote in a message posted on his Facebook page. “Measles is extremely contagious, and most people, including children, know the symptoms.”
Existing health laws and regulations prohibit a disruption in soldier promotions, while allowing reassignments or appointments postponed because of health reasons to be performed.
About 20,000 people were once thought to have contracted measles at Fort Benning, Ga., in the 1990s, including children who attended the Army-Marine Corps ROTC program, who were infected at the school and then contracted the disease on base. That outbreak led to new restrictions on child visitation and the requirement of child-protection measures at Fort Benning, including requiring vaccinations, mandatory masks for visiting soldiers and other measures to curtail the spread of the disease.
“Although measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, we have recently seen cases here in the US due to imported travelers,” Snow said. “Our greatest responsibility as preparedness officials is to protect our family, friends and neighbors and the people we serve, wherever we are stationed.”
The Defense Department also cautioned that measles has been seen in the Philippines, Africa and Australia and could be seen in other countries in the future.
Three separate outbreaks were reported in the United States last month.
The World Health Organization reported 41 cases were linked to a measles outbreak in Germany.
According to the CDC, last month is the sixth consecutive month that annual measles totals in the United States have increased. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 1, more than 2,600 people were reported to have contracted measles.
The most recent measles outbreak in the U.S. was in Utah, where 16 cases of the disease have been reported in the past six months. All but one case was linked to visitors from the Philippines, the CDC said. The Philippines has seen an uptick in measles cases this year.
Measles is transmitted by coughing or sneezing, and can occur in the nose or mouth as well as through direct contact with infected respiratory droplets.
The military is relying on vaccines to protect troops stationed overseas as part of its leadership training.
The Pentagon spokeswoman said health officials have been working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other agencies, to warn troops of the disease.
“The Department of Defense is always concerned about outbreaks and strives to ensure the safety of those who are in the U.S. military or living on U.S. installations overseas,” the statement said.