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Measles cases soar to second-highest level in 25 years

Behind the latest spike in measles cases
Behind the latest spike in measles cases 02:36

Since the beginning of 2019, 555 cases of measles have been confirmed in the United States, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's the second-greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 2000, the year measles was declared eliminated. If the current trend continues, the record of 667 cases set in 2014 will be eclipsed well before the end of this year.

Measles has been reported in 20 states this year, with notable outbreaks in New York and Washington. Just last week New York City, which has seen 285 measles cases this year, declared a public health emergency and ordered mandatory vaccinations in one Brooklyn neighborhood for people who may have been exposed to the virus. Last month, Rockland County, a New York City suburb that's confirmed 184 cases so far this year, issued an emergency order banning unvaccinated children from public places. A state judge later blocked the order.

Smaller measles outbreaks are ongoing in New Jersey and California.

According to the CDC, all of these outbreaks are linked to travelers who brought measles back from other countries such as Israel, Ukraine, and the Philippines, where large measles outbreaks are occurring.

In fact, new data from the World Health Organization shows the number of measles cases worldwide are also skyrocketing. Across the globe, the number of cases has increased 300% to more than 112,000 cases in the first quarter of 2019 compared to 28,000 at this time last year.

How measles outbreaks spread in the U.S.

Measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000 thanks to the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. But when an international traveler exposed to measles overseas brings the disease into the country, pockets of unvaccinated communities within the U.S. enable the disease to spread.

While vaccines are required for school children across the country, almost all states allow exemptions for families who say it's against their religious beliefs, and 17 states allow a parent to opt out for philosophical or personal reasons.

While easily preventable with a vaccine, measles is highly contagious and can be dangerous, especially for small children.

Experts say overall vaccination rates of 90 to 95 percent are needed to provide "herd immunity," which helps keep outbreaks at bay and protect babies who are too young to be vaccinated and others who can't get the vaccine for medical reasons. 

The anti-vaccination movement

Public health officials say current measles outbreaks in the U.S. are fueled by the anti-vaccination movement, which questions the safety of vaccines and frequently spreads false information on social media.

The mistaken belief can be traced back to 1998, when a doctor in the U.K. published a now discredited study claiming the MMR vaccine was linked to autism. His research was found to be based on fraudulent data, the study was retracted, and the doctor lost his medical license. However, the claim spread fear among parents, leading to a small but vocal faction that makes up the current anti-vax movement. 

"The overwhelming scientific evidence over many years and decades indicate that the vaccine, particularly the measles vaccine is very safe," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told CBSN AM earlier this year.

Claims about health risks from vaccines are "based purely on fabrication," he continued. "That's been proven. There is no association whatsoever between the measles vaccine and autism."

"Measles is not a trivial disease"

In January, WHO named the anti-vaccination movement among the top 10 global health threats for 2019.

Measles can be serious for all age groups, but it is most dangerous for children under 5 and adults over 70.

According to the CDC, as many as one out of every 20 children with measles gets pneumonia, the most common cause of death from measles in young kids.

About one out of every 1,000 children with measles will develop swelling of the brain, which can lead to convulsions and leave the child deaf or with an intellectual disability. For every 1,000 children who get the disease, the CDC estimated one or two will die from it.

Measles can also cause pregnant women to give birth prematurely or have a low-birth-weight baby.

"Measles is not a trivial disease," Fauci warned. "When measles was rampant before the vaccines were available, it was one of the most devastating diseases globally and in the United States. Prior to the 1960's when the vaccine was introduced there were a couple million cases of measles and 400 to 500 deaths a year, thousands and thousands of hospitalizations and a thousand cases of encephalitis [inflammation of the brain]."

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