After declaring in 2000 that measles had been eliminated from the U.S. through a successful vaccination program, government officials now say the number of confirmed cases has reached a 20-year high as people who get the disease abroad bring it back to America.
Unvaccinated Americans and foreign visitors who traveled to the Philippines and other Asian countries, Europe and Africa are the main culprits in a growing spike of U.S. measles cases that began several years ago and exploded this year.
As of last Friday, 288 cases have been reported in 18 states, the highest year-to-date total since 1994, when 963 cases were reported by year’s end. Ninety-seven percent — 280 — of the U.S. cases were imported from other countries.
“Measles is coming in on airplanes from places where the disease still circulates or where large outbreaks are occurring,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A highly contagious viral respiratory disease that grows in cells at the back of the throat and lungs, measles is spread through the air by coughing, sneezing and even breathing. It can cause fever and coldlike symptoms, along with a stubborn rash.
Fifteen measles outbreaks, involving three or more related cases, have occurred in places such as New York City and California, where six outbreaks were reported in six counties. Forty-three people have been hospitalized nationally, but no deaths have been reported.
The imported virus is “landing in places in the U.S. where groups of unimmunized people live,” Schuchat said. “That setting gives the measles virus a Welcome Wagon by providing a chance for outbreaks to occur. And the larger the outbreak, the more difficult to stop.”