- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2019

U.S. health officials reported Monday that more people have contracted measles in the first three months of this year than they did in all of last year — a viral outbreak driven by unvaccinated children in various areas of the country two decades after the illness was declared eliminated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 387 cases of measles through March, surpassing last year’s total of 372 cases. This year’s tally is the highest since 2014, when 667 cases were reported.

Four states — New York, Washington, New Jersey and California — have six outbreaks involving three or more cases, which are linked to travelers who have contracted the disease abroad in countries such as Israel, Ukraine and the Philippines, the CDC reported Monday.

The virus was eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, and public health officials say the 2019 resurgence stems from falling vaccination rates fueled by myths that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine increases children’s risk of developing autism. The rumor has been debunked several times.

“Vaccine exemptions [medical or nonmedical] increase the risk of avoidable, deadly outbreaks,” said Dr. Robert L. Quigley, a regional director of International SOS, a travel and medical security risk services company.

The highly contagious measles virus spreads through coughs or sneezes and causes fever, runny nose and body rash that can develop into deadly pneumonia and encephalitis, particularly among young children.

The CDC recommends that children receive two doses of the MMR vaccine: the first at 12 to 15 months and again at 4 to 6 years. The vaccination is reported to be 97 percent effective.

The virus has shown that it can gain a foothold where populations avoid the immunizations.

Public health officials say that is the case in the northern suburbs of New York City’s Rockland County, where 157 people have been infected since fall. The outbreak is largely among the Orthodox Jewish community, which tends to have lower vaccination rates.

Officials there took the extraordinary step last month of announcing a state of emergency and barring unvaccinated people 18 and younger from public places including schools, shopping centers, restaurants and houses of worship.

“[The state of emergency] is an attention grab; there’s no question about it,” Rockland County Executive Ed Day said at a news conference.

He said officials were exploring reports that health workers were encountering resistance when investigating cases.

The California Department of Public Health said this weekend that it was “very concerned” because the state has 16 confirmed cases already this year, compared with 21 for all of 2018.

“We see [this] in our school data, [that] there are some schools that have a lower percentage of children who’ve received all their immunization,” said Dr. James Watt, chief of the state’s division of communicable disease control.

Dr. Watt said measles cases in the past have spread in areas of the state where immunization coverage is lower.

Another hot spot is Washington state’s Clark County, where at least 73 cases have been reported this year. Health officials last month ordered more than 800 potentially exposed students to stay home for several weeks. Lower vaccination rates have been highlighted as the cause of the outbreak.

Lawmakers in several states frustrated with rules allowing citizens to receive exemptions from MMR vaccinations, including New York, California and Washington, have introduced proposals in recent months to make it harder for parents to avoid vaccinating their children by eliminating exemptions based on religious or philosophical beliefs.

Currently, 47 states allow religious exemption from vaccinations, and 18 of those states also allow exemptions based on philosophical ideas or personal beliefs.

Mississippi, West Virginia and California allow only a medical exemption for vaccinations.

The number of nonmedical exemption requests has increased since 2009 in Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah.

• Dan Boylan can be reached at dboylan@washingtontimes.com.

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