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CDC says 20,000 people may have been exposed to measles at Asbury University religious revival

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An estimated 20,000 people attended a large religious gathering in Kentucky on the same days as a resident who was infected with measles last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday, with potential contacts who may have been exposed to the highly transmissible virus now spanning multiple states and countries.

The CDC is urging doctors to "be on high alert for measles symptoms'' among people who attended the gathering and is actively working with Kentucky authorities to search for additional cases.

"Community transmission of measles in connection with this event is possible, particularly among unvaccinated or under-vaccinated individuals," CDC spokesperson Scott Pauley said in a statement.

Pauley said that the agency is urging unvaccinated people who may have been exposed at the Asbury University gathering to contact a doctor and get vaccinated. 

Vaccines or immunoglobulin can be administered following exposure to unvaccinated or undervaccinated people to fend off the virus.

The CDC's plea follows a weeks-long religious "revival" gathering hosted by Asbury University in Kentucky. Thousands had flocked to Asbury University in the Kentucky town of Wilmore, far outstripping the town's population of some 6,000 residents.

CBS affiliate WKYT reported the spontaneous gathering began on Feb. 8, after some students decided to remain in the Christian liberal arts university's chapel after a scheduled service had ended. It ultimately attracted 50 to 70,000 people, the station reported, as word of the event had spread on social media.

The university says in the past it has hosted multiple "great revivals," which are typically marked by a series of consecutive religious services held over several days.

The university says it does not plan to host or sponsor any additional "outpouring" services at this time.

State officials first confirmed it had launched an investigation into the Asbury measles case last month in an unvaccinated resident of Jessamine County, which encompasses Asbury University. 

The case marks the third diagnosed in Kentucky over as many months, including another linked to a recent large outbreak in Ohio. Nationwide, the CDC says a total of three measles cases have been reported in two jurisdictions this year.

Asbury University said the person attended their religious services before developing symptoms of measles. However, the CDC said the person was contagious at the time they were on campus for Feb. 17 and 18.

Measles symptoms — which include cough, fever and a rash — typically develop around two weeks after a person is exposed. People can be contagious for four days before their rash appears. 

The virus is considered among the most highly transmissible diseases, with as many as 9 in 10 susceptible contacts of contagious cases catching the virus. For immunized people exposed to the virus, the vaccine is estimated to be about 97% effective.

Students at Asbury University are required to have received the two-dose MMR vaccine, CBS affiliate WKYT reported

Before vaccines were rolled out in the 1960s, an average of around 500 deaths and 48,000 hospitalizations were caused annually by the virus. Severe complications include brain swelling and pneumonia.

The Jessamine County Health Department said Friday it was planning to stand up a measles vaccine clinic in response to the potential outbreak.

"Recent data released from CDC indicates that MMR vaccine coverage among Kentucky kindergarteners is among the lowest in the nation," the Kentucky Department for Public Health said in a statement.

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