Measles Outbreak: Cases Rise in Europe and U.S.

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The global outbreak of measles is continuing to spread, with cases rising in Europe and certain parts of the U.S., including California.

So far this year, 98 cases of the disease have been reported in 23 U.S. states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s nearly twice as many as one would expect in an entire year, and 13 of the cases have been California — seven reported in April alone.

The uptick in California is being driven by non-immunized travelers who acquire infection elsewhere and enter the state, and by non-immunized residents traveling abroad, becoming infected and returning home, health officials say.

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“We see that as worrisome,” Dr. Gilberto Chavez, deputy director of the California Department of Public Health, told the Los Angeles Times.

Since 2000, there have been no indigenous cases of the disease in the U.S. Health experts believed they were close to eradicating measles worldwide, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has pushed its target date for elimination to 2015. Many experts say this is still not enough time.

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In Europe, 6,500 people in 30 countries have been infected with measles — largely in France, which has declared an official epidemic: more than 5,000 cases were reported between January and March 2011, nearly as many cases reported during all of 2010. WHO says France is controlling the spread by vaccinating infants and offering the vaccine to un-vaccinated people.

The disease is also spreading through India and the Philippines.

Children are most at risk for the highly contagious disease, which causes fever, coughing and blotchy reddish-brown rashes. The virus can be spread to others by coughing and sneezing. Health officials say if the disease takes hold in a non-immunized community, it can spread quickly — 90% of people who are not vaccinated and exposed to measles get sick.

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About a third of patients develop complications like brain swelling, dehydration and pneumonia, which can become life-threatening. However, death from measles is rare in the U.S.; the risk is higher in poor countries.

WHO officials emphasize that the key to eliminating the disease is through immunization; widespread measles vaccination resulted in a 78% drop in measles deaths worldwide between 2000 and 2008. All children and young adults should be fully immunized with two doses of MMR (measles, mumps and rubella vaccine); although infants are usually vaccinated after age 1, infants who are traveling abroad may receive the measles vaccine as early as 6 months.