Measles: 2011 Was the Worst in the U.S. in 15 Years

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Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. But a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says infections have risen: last year the U.S. reported the highest number of measles cases in 15 years.

According to the report, 222 measles cases and 17 measles outbreaks were reported to the CDC in 2011. Of the 222 reported cases, 50% were associated with the 17 outbreaks and 90% were associated with importations from foreign countries — 26% from U.S. residents traveling abroad and 10% from foreign visitors.

In a typical year, there are 50 to 60 cases of measles. The highest caseload before last year was 508, in 1996.

The CDC said that each case of measles is subjected to a rapid and intensive investigation to ensure that the highly contagious virus doesn’t take hold in the community. “You can catch measles just by being in a room where someone with measles has been, even if they left,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, in a teleconference. “It’s serious — 1 out of 3 people who got it last year had to be hospitalized.” None of the cases resulted in death, however.

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The CDC said that low measles vaccination rates in Europe and elsewhere have fueled the uptick, and urged more Americans to update their measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination. “People need to be up-to-date on MMR and other vaccinations, including when they are preparing to travel internationally to any destination. Unvaccinated people place themselves and others in their communities at risk for measles and its complications,” the report says.

The CDC recommends children should receive their first dose of MMR vaccine at 12 to 15 months and their second between ages 4 and 6.

Of the 196 U.S. residents who had measles last year, 166 were unvaccinated or unsure of their vaccination status, but 85% of them were eligible for the vaccine. Among the 141 patients who were unvaccinated and eligible, nine were infants aged 6–11 months and had a recent history of international travel, 14 were aged 12–15 months — the recommended age for the first vaccine dose — and 66 were between the ages 16 months to 19 years. Of those 66 patients, 50 had not been vaccinated due to philosophic, religious or personal objections.

(MORE: Vaccines: They’re Not Just for Kids (But Too Few U.S. Adults Are Getting Immunized))

According to Schuchat, many people think diseases like measles are gone and that they do not need to vaccinate themselves or their children. But the CDC warns measles is still prevalent worldwide. Globally, about 20 million people get measles each year. “Nearly half of the cases found in the U.S. were from travelers coming from Europe. Last year, France, Italy and Spain were hard hit.”

As summer approaches and families plan vacations, the CDC encourages Americans to take preventive measures. Already in 2012, 25 cases of measles have been reported. Infection is typically characterized by a rash lasting more than three days, a fever and cough.

The report was released Thursday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Morality Weekly Report.