Measles, a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease that was all but eradicated in the United States nine years ago, has climbed to its highest level in 25 years at more than 700 cases so far in 2019. The resurgence of the disease is attributed to misinformation that is turning parents against vaccines.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday that from Jan. 1-April 26, 704 individual cases of measles have been confirmed in 22 states, an increase of 78 from the previous week. The number of cases is expected to climb even higher with eight months to go in 2019. This is the worst year for measles in the United States since 1994, when there were 963 cases during the entire 12 months, the agency said.
Sixty-one of the new cases were reported in New York state, where outbreaks have occurred among unvaccinated members of ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County. About three-fourths of the U.S. measles cases are in those communities, and public health officials are worried cases could surge among those groups after Passover gatherings. It takes from 10 to 12 days for symptoms of measles to occur.
“There’s a lot of misinformation from this anti-vaccine movement within the community,” Dr. Joseph Kaplovitz, a pediatrician who serves the ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, told The Associated Press. “Some of the misinformation is that it causes autism, that the vaccines contain mercury, that the disease itself will protect them from cancer, eczema.”
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis generally have no religious objections to vaccines and have urged their followers to get inoculated. But the “anti-vaxxer” movement has made inroads among the ultra-Orthodox, even though they have little exposure to the internet.
Among the 22 states confirming measles, California, Washington state and Michigan also have high numbers of measles cases. Other states reporting measles are Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Texas and Tennessee.
At UCLA in California, 127 students and staff were quarantined to control the spread of the disease. At California State University-Los Angeles, 200 workers at a campus library, including some students, were sent home under quarantine orders and told to avoid contact with others. Public health officials in California were also trying to track down more than 1,500 people who were potentially exposed to the measles after a person with the disease flew into Los Angeles International Airport.
Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University vaccine expert, told The AP the trend away from vaccines is “alarming,” not only because measles is dangerous in itself, but also because it could mean children aren’t being vaccinated for other preventable diseases.
The vaccine against measles has been available since the 1960s and is considered safe and highly effective. Measles began making a comeback because of the spread of widely debunked information about the safety of vaccines. In 2014, there were 667 measles cases in the United States.
The CDC recommends the vaccine for everyone over a year old, except for people who had the disease as children. Those who have had measles are immune.
“Many parents are afraid. And if you want to believe your kid doesn’t need that many shots, there’s plenty of places to find people who agree with you,” Dr. Jonathan Fielding, former head of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, told The AP. “It’s not so easy to discern what is real and what is not.”
In most people, measles causes fever, runny nose, cough and a rash that covers the body. In a small fraction of cases, complications such as pneumonia and dangerous swelling of the brain can occur.
No one has died from the measles this year, but the CDC warns that for every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die. Since 2000 when the CDC declared measles eradicated, there have been three measles-related deaths in the United States, the most recent in 2015.
But before the vaccines became available, measles took a terrible toll. In 1958, the worst year for measles in recorded history, more than 552 people died. There were more than 763,000 measles cases that year.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
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