Largest measles outbreak in years underscores importance of vaccination

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This year’s jump in measles in the United States and Canada was costly and occurred among unvaccinated children and adults, suggest several studies being presented at the 49th annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA).
Thanks to a successful infant measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination program, measles has been declared eliminated in the United States – meaning the illness hasn’t had continuous spread – since 2000. But outbreaks can occur when the infection is imported, typically by unvaccinated Americans who are infected while traveling to Europe or other continents and then return home, or by foreign tourists who are infected and travel to this country.
Measles is very contagious and can spread quickly in communities with low vaccination rates and among those who are not fully vaccinated (including infants and other vulnerable populations). This is the largest number of reported measles cases in many years: 15 years in the United States and 16 years in Canada.
“Forest fires start with sparks, but unless there is sufficient dry tinder, they won’t roar out of control,” says James M. Hughes, MD, IDSA president. “The same is true of outbreaks. The occasional case is not an issue, but when it occurs in a community where a fair number of people are not vaccinated it can cause serious problems. This is why vaccination is important. We don’t want to return to the days when measles and other vaccination-preventable diseases were rampant.”
Before measles vaccination was available in the 1960s, in the United States every year about three to four million people were infected with measles, 48,000 were hospitalized, 1,000 were permanently disabled and about 500 died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
U. S. Measles Outbreak Largest Since 1996
In 2011 to date, 212 people with measles have been reported in the United States, 68 were hospitalized and at least 12 of them had pneumonia, reports the CDC. This is the largest number of measles cases since 1996. Rapid public health response efforts prevented measles cases and outbreaks from becoming much larger, by isolating cases and vaccinating those who were unvaccinated.
Of those infected, 183 (86 percent) were unvaccinated, or their vaccination status was unknown and 27 (13 percent) were less than a year old. Most of the imported measles cases occurred among U.S. residents traveling overseas to Western Europe (47 percent), Africa or Asia, where vaccination rates are significantly lower, and measles is an ongoing problem.
“The MMR vaccine is very safe and effective at preventing measles, and high coverage is critical for preventing outbreaks,” says Huong McLean, PhD, epidemiologist at the CDC. “Quick public health response limited the spread of the disease. But the more unvaccinated people there are in a community, the more difficult it is to control an outbreak.”

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