The number of confirmed measles cases in the U.S. has reached 971, surpassing a previous high set 25 years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Thursday.
The previous 25-year high was set in 1994, with 963 cases reported for that entire year. In just five months, 2019 has now become the worst year for measles outbreaks since 1992, when nearly 2,200 cases of the highly contagious disease were reported.
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Ongoing outbreaks in New York City and Rockland County, New York, have largely fueled the high numbers, though many other states have also reported cases of the disease.
The CDC has linked many of the recent outbreaks ― defined as three or more cases ― to travelers bringing measles back from countries with larger ongoing measles outbreaks. The disease then spreads mostly in “communities with pockets of unvaccinated people,” according to the CDC ― a likely byproduct of a growing anti-vaccination movement in the U.S.
“Measles is preventable and the way to end this outbreak is to ensure that all children and adults who can get vaccinated, do get vaccinated,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a statement.
“Again, I want to reassure parents that vaccines are safe, they do not cause autism. The greater danger is the disease that vaccination prevents,” he added, referring to a common ― and unfounded ― fear within anti-vaccine circles.
The measles virus spreads through coughing and sneezing and can cause fever and congestion, as well as small red bumps over the entire body. It can also lead to disabling and sometimes fatal complications, including severe diarrhea, pneumonia and brain inflammation.
Two doses of the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella, are roughly 97% effective at preventing measles, according to the CDC.
With better vaccination protocols and coverage, the CDC announced in 2000 that endemic measles had been eliminated. But with a worsening outbreak of the disease across the U.S., that elimination status could now be compromised.
“If these outbreaks continue through summer and fall, the United States may lose its measles elimination status,” the CDC said Thursday. “That loss would be a huge blow for the nation and erase the hard work done by all levels of public health.”