The number of reported cases of measles in the USA has surpassed previous annual totals this century – less than four months into 2019.
Another rash of measles cases, mostly concentrated in New York City, raised this year’s figure to 695, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
The previous highest total since 2000, when measles was declared eliminated in the USA, was 667 in 2014. At no other point in this century had the amount climbed above 400.
Health officials warn that the longer the outbreaks continue, the greater the chance that measles will again become entrenched in the USA.
New York health officials said Wednesday that 61 cases were confirmed since last week, pushing the national figure closer to the 700 mark and making this the worst year for measles since 1994, when there were 963 instances.
The disease, which typically kills one or two per 1,000 cases and can cause long-term damage, has made a comeback largely because of pockets of unvaccinated communities. Some parents reject immunizations because of erroneous information, often distributed through social media.
“Probably the No. 1 factor we have to fight is misinformation, this concept some people have that vaccines are dangerous," said Judd Hultquist, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Public health practitioners regard the measles vaccine, administered along with immunization for mumps and rubella, as safe and highly effective. It provides 93% protection after a first dose, recommended at 12-15 months of age, and 97% protection after a second shot at ages 4-6.
About three-quarters of this year’s illnesses in the USA have been in New York state, mainly in two ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and suburban Rockland County, which declared a state of emergency and barred unvaccinated minors from public places in late March. The order was blocked in court.
Ultra-Orthodox rabbis generally have no religious objections to vaccines and urged their followers to get inoculated. But the anti-vaxxer movement has made inroads among the ultra-Orthodox, even though they have little exposure to the internet.
The CDC said measles cases have been reported in 22 states this year, including outbreaks – defined as three or more instances – in six states.
Measles is highly contagious and can spread through coughing and sneezing. Someone who is not immune can become infected after coming in contact with a contaminated surface or airspace, where the virus can last for up to two hours.
Symptoms of the disease, which has no cure, may take a week or two to appear and include a high fever, cough, runny nose and red eyes, followed by a rash that starts in the face and spreads to other parts of the body. In some cases, the illness can lead to pneumonia and dehydration.
Unvaccinated children in impoverished countries are most vulnerable to the harshest effects of measles, which killed 110,000 people as recently as 2017 – most of them under 5 years old – according to the World Health Organization.
Adults are susceptible, too. Last week, an Israeli flight attendant fell into a coma after contracting measles and developing encephalitis.
Nate Smith, director of the Arkansas Department of Health, said the increased opposition to vaccines represents a significant public health concern because the diseases they protect against are no longer being mostly imported by the occasional ill traveler.
“We’re seeing actual transmission of cycles of measles here in the U.S. That’s very concerning," Smith said. “The progress we made to basically build a wall of protection with immunization has crumbled."
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: CDC: Measles cases surge past yearly record for 21st century