Measles Still a Threat, U.S. Health Officials Warn
Sporadic outbreaks caused by travelers to countries without vaccination programs, doctors say
By Steven Reinberg
THURSDAY, Dec. 5 (HealthDay News) -- Although measles has been virtually eliminated in the United States, outbreaks still occur here. And they're usually triggered by people infected abroad, in countries where widespread vaccination doesn't exist, federal health officials said Thursday.
And while it's been 50 years since the introduction of the measles vaccine, the highly infectious and potentially fatal respiratory disease still poses a global threat. Every day some 430 children around the world die of measles. In 2011, there were an estimated 158,000 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Measles is probably the single most infectious of all infectious diseases," CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said during an afternoon news conference.
Dramatic progress has been made in eliminating measles, but much more needs to be done, Frieden noted. "We are not anywhere near the finish line," he said.
In a new study in the Dec. 5 issue of the journal JAMA Pediatrics, CDC researcher Dr. Mark Papania and colleagues found that the elimination of measles in the United States that was announced in 2000 had been sustained through 2011. Elimination means no continuous disease transmission for more than 12 months.
"But elimination is not eradication. As long as there is measles anywhere in the world there is a threat of measles anywhere else in the world," Frieden said. "We have seen an increasing number of cases in recent years coming from a wide variety of countries. Over [this] year, we have had 52 separate, known importations, with about half of them coming from Europe."
Before the U.S. vaccination program started in 1963, an estimated 450 to 500 people died in the United States from measles each year; 48,000 were hospitalized; 7,000 had seizures; and some 1,000 people suffered permanent brain damage or deafness.
Since widespread vaccination, there has been an average of 60 cases a year, Dr. Alan Hinman, director for programs at the Center for Vaccine Equity of the Task Force for Global Health, said at the news conference.
But, Frieden pointed out, "We have seen a spike this year with 175 cases and counting. Nine outbreaks, including three large ones -- New York City, North Carolina and Texas, and 20 hospitalized cases."
All of the U.S. outbreaks were tied to people who brought back measles from overseas. Most of those sickened weren't vaccinated, Frieden added.
Speaking at the press conference, Hinman said: "It's nice to be worrying about 175 cases. It's a mark of progress, but it also shows how much further we have to go. Measles is so infectious that before a vaccine was available essentially every child in the United States had measles before the age of 15. That means every year, on average, there were 4 million cases."