By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
According to the CDC in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, last year was the worst year for measles in the U.S. in 15 years. They report that there were 222 cases of measles, a large jump from the 60 or so seen in a typical year. Most of the cases last year were imported — either by foreign visitors or by U.S. residents who picked up the virus overseas.
U.S. children have been getting vaccinated against the measles for about 50 years. But low vaccination rates in Europe and other places resulted in large outbreaks overseas last year authorities speculate.
So far this year, 27 U.S. cases have been reported and it's too early to gauge whether 2012 will be as bad as last year. But with large international events like the London Olympics coming up, health officials are urging everyone — particularly international travellers — to make sure they're fully vaccinated. “For those of you travelling abroad, bring back memories and not measles,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of the 196 U.S. residents who had measles in 2011, 166 were unvaccinated or didn't know if they'd been vaccinated, although 141 were eligible to be vaccinated, the CDC report found. Sixty-six percent of the 141 who were eligible for vaccination were between the ages of 16 months through 19 years, the time span a person is most likely to be vaccinated. Three-quarters had not received the vaccine because of a philosophical, religious or personal exemption. The vaccine is considered very effective but a few vaccinated people still get infected.
Although no cases of measles death were reported in the U.S, about a third were hospitalized, and one child was touch-and-go for about a week before finally recovering, one CDC official said. Officials traced 200 of last year's 222 cases to measles in another country, said Schuchat, director of the CDC's Office of Infectious Diseases. The largest outbreak was in the Minneapolis area where 21 cases were traced to a child who got sick after a trip to Kenya. The last time the United States had more measles was in 1996, when 508 cases were reported.
The highly infectious illness seems to be making an unexpected comeback. Measles was declared eliminated in 2000 after public health measures successfully interrupted the transmission of disease from person-to-person in the United States. The disease is still endemic in many other parts of the world, however.