Measles Vaccine Scare: 88% of Cases Have Occurred in Specific Communities

88 percent of cases have occurred in very specific areas.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that 2019 has been the worst year for measles since the disease was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000. But the risk of actually contracting measles remains quite low for the average person, especially if they received the recommended vaccines as a child, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released Monday suggests.

The report states that the total measles case count as of April 26 has reached 704 people nationwide. This number, which involves 13 separate outbreaks in 22 states, with 66 patients requiring hospitalization, is the highest single-year number of cases since 1994, when there were 963 measles cases in the US. It represents an unprecedented increase over the 116 cases reported in 2001, the year after the CDC declared its victory over measles.

But Monday’s report contains one nugget of data that should be a source of comfort for anyone who’s unsure about whether they are protected: 88 percent of all the cases in 2019 came from “underimmunized close-knit communities” — often places where religious exemption rules are used by parents to justify not vaccinating their children. Most children in the US receive a measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine when they’re young, immunizing them almost completely against all three diseases.

The CDC notes that six of the 13 outbreaks happened in under-vaccinated communities.

This map shows where all the measles cases in the US in 2019 have been, as of April 26.


Why Disease Spreads in Some Communities

Lack of immunizations, whether for religious or philosophical reasons, are the primary cause for the spread of measles in small communities. This year, an Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland, New York, accounts for 202 of the 704 cases, constituting almost 29 percent of all US measles cases this year. Rockland County health authorities report that 80.7 percent of the patients in their community had not received an MMR, and 11.4 had unknown vaccination statuses.

In January, one of the first measles outbreaks in the US occurred in a small community near Portland, Oregon. This region had been identified in 2018 as a “hotspot” for disease spread because of its high concentration of anti-vaccination advocates.

The ongoing outbreaks echo what happened in 2014, when an Amish community in Ohio accounted for 99 percent of the 383 measles cases in the state that year. In that outbreak, 89 percent of the people affected were unvaccinated.

Following an International Trend

While unvaccinated communities appear to be responsible for spreading the virus within the US, they’re also demonstrative of an international trend. Measles as a virus has not been eradicated globally, and it is fully capable of resurfacing in areas where there is a lack of immunity.

The World Health Organization reported in mid-April that the number of worldwide measles cases in the first months of 2019 was 300 percent greater than the number that occurred in the same period in 2018. Many US measles outbreaks in 2019 have been traced back to international travelers who spread the virus while visiting the country.

The CDC warns that anyone who isn’t immune to measles — either because they were not vaccinated or because they contracted the illness in the past — is at risk if they come into contact with someone who has the disease. It is a misconception that deliberate exposure to people with measles is a smart way to confer immunity: The complications of measles can include pneumonia, encephalitis, and even death.

How to Protect Yourself From Measles

Anyone who has received the standard two-shot MMR vaccine is protected from the disease, even if they come into contact with communities experiencing an outbreak. This vaccine, standard after 1989, is 97 percent effective.

Some doctors have raised concerns that some people, vaccinated between certain years, may require a booster shot. People who got the single-dose measles vaccine between 1960 and 1989 are 93 percent likely to be protected.

The only vaccinated people who might need to worry are those who received the killed vaccine between 1963 and 1967. The CDC recommends that these people “should be revaccinated” with the new MMR vaccine.

If you’ve gotten the current MMR vaccine, the outbreaks happening in the US and around the world are most likely not going to endanger your health personally. But for people in communities where vaccination is rare, the danger is very real.

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