U.S. Measles Outbreaks Hit Highest Level in More Than 25 Years

Hmmmmm – and where do you think that these cases might be getting imported from???

CDC says 971 cases have been reported so far in 2019

A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. This year is now the worst for measles since 1992, when 2,126 cases were reported. PHOTO: BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS

The number of measles cases in the U.S. this year has hit its highest level in more than 25 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, warning that a major public-health milestone—the elimination of measles in the U.S. — may be sacrificed if two large outbreaks aren’t curbed by the fall.

The CDC said 971 cases have been reported so far in 2019, including 91 cases in the past week and a half. The tally means that in just five months, the outbreaks have surpassed the 963 cases reported in all of 1994, the 25-year high.

This year is now the worst for measles since 1992, when 2,126 cases were reported. Public-health authorities declared in 2000 that measles in the U.S. had been eliminated.

“I’m worried,” Thomas Clark, deputy director of the CDC’s division of viral diseases, said in an interview. “This is the worst it’s been since we did what it took to eliminate measles.”

Most of the cases this year are connected to two outbreaks, in New York City and Rockland County, N.Y. The virus has been spreading there mostly among unvaccinated children in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. The two outbreaks are the largest and longest-running since measles’ elimination in the U.S.

Individual cases or small outbreaks have been reported in other states. Overall, 26 states have reported measles cases this year, from Maine to California.

CDC officials said they are concerned the New York outbreaks will continue past the end of September, the point at which the U.S. would lose its designation as a country that has eliminated measles. That would be one year from the time the New York City and Rockland County outbreaks began.

“The loss would be a huge blow for the nation and erase the hard work done by all levels of public health,” the CDC said in a statement.

Measles is a highly contagious disease that causes a fever, rash, and other symptoms. About one-third of children who develop measles will have complications, including diarrhea, pneumonia or ear infections. In rare cases, it can also lead to serious complications, such as brain inflammation or even death.

One reason for worry about the current outbreaks, Dr. Clark said, is that people are still being exposed to measles in public venues, including doctors’ waiting rooms.

Those are places in which exposures are common early in outbreaks, but not this many months in, when public-health officials usually have been able to tamp down widespread transmission, Dr. Clark said.

“Those things should be brought under control, and they’re worrying signs if you continue to see them,” he said. “It makes us worried that somebody has been exposed to measles you weren’t aware of.”

At this point in an outbreak, new cases are usually limited to people close to those who are infected, he said.

Another source of concern is people will soon start summer travels and children will attend summer camps. “Summer might spark more cases and more outbreaks,” Dr. Clark said.

U.S. measles outbreaks generally occur when someone becomes infected in another country and then transmits the virus to others, usually unvaccinated people.

Outbreaks have been relatively rare in the U.S. in the past two decades as a result of vaccination efforts.

Before use of the vaccine became widespread, an estimated three million to four million people got measles each year in the U.S., the CDC said. Of them, 400 to 500 people died, and 48,000 were hospitalized.

The cases in 1992 marked the tail end of a large measles resurgence involving mostly unvaccinated inner-city preschoolers. That led to the introduction of a two-dose regimen of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and intensive efforts to reach children with it.

As the U.S. battles the largest measles outbreak in decades, big tech companies like Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp are trying to tamp down on the spread of misinformation about vaccines. WSJ’s Spencer Macnaughton explains. Photo Composite: Adele Morgan/The Wall Street Journal

The elimination designation meant the virus no longer circulates continuously in this country.

Vaccination rates nationally are high; about 94% of kindergartners have had two doses of the vaccine, according to the CDC. Yet there are pockets where vaccination rates are below that level, and measles can spread if brought into the community by someone who has been infected.

Skepticism about vaccines is growing in the U.S., particularly in insular communities, where several measles outbreaks have occurred in recent years.

Public-health officials are increasingly turning to community groups and local medical practitioners to stem the outbreak in ultra-Orthodox communities. They are also looking for new ways to improve outreach.

“We will re-evaluate how to reach communities that choose not to be vaccinated,” Dr. Clark said.

There have been 550 people diagnosed with measles in New York City from October 2018 through May 28, up from 535 as of May 24, according to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

More than three-quarters of the cases have been in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, clustered in the ultra-Orthodox community.

New cases are occurring elsewhere in the city, however, including six people in Staten Island who were exposed to measles in Rockland County and were ill in March. Two others—one in Staten Island, one in Manhattan—were exposed in another Brooklyn neighborhood.

There have been 254 cases of measles in Rockland County as of May 30, according to the New York State Department of Health.

New York City health officials have issued 123 civil summonses to people found to be noncompliant with an April emergency order requiring unvaccinated people in parts of Brooklyn to get the vaccine. They haven’t collected fines on any of the summonses, however.

Written by Betsy McKay for The Wall Street Journal ~ May 30, 2019 (Melanie Grayce West contributed to this article.)

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