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CDC reports significant rise in measles outbreaks, importance of vaccines

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Measles on the rise

A new report from the CDC highlights the importance of vaccines to prevent measles.

The weekly morbidity and mortality report from the agency found 118 cases of measles in the first four months of 2011 in 23 U.S. States and New York that were linked to travel to countries with outbreaks of the virus; primarily Europe and Southeast Asia.

According to the report, 89 percent of measles cases were linked to unvaccinated individuals. Forty five of those resided in the U.S. and were between 12 months and 19 years of age.

The outbreaks occurred January 1 to May 20, 2011, and 89 percent were linked to measles outbreaks in other countries.

Among the 45 - 87 percent had not received MMR vaccine because of parental preference to withhold immunization for religious or philosophical reasons.

The CDC statistics also showed 83 percent of 42 U.S. residents over age 20 who acquired measles had not been vaccinated - six of whom declined MMR immunization. Thirty individuals traveled abroad and were unvaccinated, one traveler failed to get two doses of recommended immunization.

Increase in cases of measles highlights importance of vaccination

"The increased number of measles importations into the United States this year underscores the importance of vaccination to prevent measles and its complications," the researchers wrote, adding that children and adults who remain unvaccinated not only place themselves at risk but increase the risk of spread to vulnerable community members. That includes infants who are too young to be immunized and individuals with medical contraindications to vaccination.

The findings are important for those who are not vaccinated against the disease that can cause permanent disability, pneumonia and death. Infants who are too young to receive the vaccine or remain unprotected are especially at risk for complications.

Rash, runny nose, cough, fever and conjunctivitis symptoms should lead physicians to suspect measles, in light of the higher incidence reported since the beginning of the year.

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The CDC emphasizes the importance for physicians in recognizing at risk populations who have traveled abroad or had contact with travelers. Clinicians are urged to promptly report suspected cases to their local health department and obtain specimens for confirmation of the virus.

Emphasizing the importance of MMR immunization, the CDC researchers write, “Measles can lead to life-threatening complications. During 1989--1991, a resurgence of measles in the United States resulted in >100 deaths among >55,000 cases reported, reminding U.S. residents of the potential severity of measles, even in the era of modern medical care.

In the years that followed, the United States witnessed the return of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis among U.S. children, a rare, fatal neurologic complication of measles that had all but disappeared after measles vaccine was introduced in the 1966.”

Thirty-three countries in the WHO European Region are also experiencing higher number of outbreaks. There have been 6 reported deaths from the virus, 360 cases of severe pneumonia and 12 cases of encephalitis that has not occurred in the U.S. Ten thousand cases have been reported in Europe from January to April, 2011.

The 118 cases of measles reported this year led to nine cases of pneumonia and 47 hospitalizations, with the highest rates among infants and children.

Minnesota had the highest measles outbreak this year, with 21 cases. Many of the cases were linked to unvaccinated children whose parents were concerned about whether the MMR vaccine is safe.

According to the authors, "That outbreak resulted in exposure to many persons and infection of at least seven infants too young to receive MMR vaccine."

The number of measles outbreaks this year, defined as three or more confirmed cases, is the highest seen in fifteen years. The CDC, again, emphasizes MMR vaccine is safe and can prevent measles and associated complications.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons