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Measles cases on rise in U.S., due to imported virus

Measles infections have risen dramatically this year, with

Measles infections have risen dramatically this year, with outbreaks erupting in this state and others as the highly infectious virus is imported from abroad. Credit: iStock

Measles infections have risen dramatically this year, with outbreaks erupting in this state and others as the highly infectious virus is imported from abroad.

An almost forgotten scourge in some countries, measles has made an astounding comeback in such unexpected parts of the world as Britain, the European continent and Israel, and it is in these regions where American travelers are contracting it.

Worse, more than 98 percent of Americans who've become infected were unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which voiced concern about the measles upsurge Thursday.

"This isn't the failure of a vaccine," said CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden. "This is the failure to vaccinate."

There have been nearly three times as many measles cases nationally this year compared with each of the past 13 years.

Measles was declared eliminated in this country and the rest of the Western Hemisphere in 2000, Frieden said. But elimination doesn't equate with total eradication, he said during a news briefing. When pockets of the population remain unimmunized, the virus can spread remarkably fast, he added.

Since 2000, there were generally about 60 measles cases a year nationwide. This year, there have been that many in Brooklyn alone. Nationally, so far, there have been 175 cases. North Carolina and Texas, like Brooklyn, have also experienced major outbreaks.

The Brooklyn outbreak struck two Jewish communities where parents shun vaccines for religious reasons. A 17-year-old who had traveled to London contracted the virus and spread it upon return.

Two measles cases have been diagnosed in Nassau County this year; none have been detected in Suffolk.

Mary Ellen Laurain, spokeswoman for the Nassau County health department, said neither of the Nassau cases were linked to the Brooklyn outbreak. And like other measles cases nationally, she said, they were imported.

Dr. Paul Lee, a specialist in infectious diseases at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, said one of the Nassau cases was treated this summer at his facility. He described the patient as an adolescent who traveled to Turkey.

"In the United States, we tend to think of measles as no big deal," Lee said Thursday of an infection with serious side effects. "But when you ask most people when they last saw a case of measles, they can't tell you."

Measles cases have risen exponentially over the past decade in global regions once lauded for high rates of vaccine compliance. In Europe, according to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 20,000 cases this year.

Dr. Pascal Imperato, dean of the School of Public Health at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, said the measles comeback abroad can be traced to misplaced fears about vaccines and autism.

"There was a controversial report that linked measles and other immunizations to the development of autism," Imperato said of a paper published in the medical journal, The Lancet, 15 years ago. "That in turn gave rise to noncompliance on the part of many parents."

The Lancet retracted the report and the doctor who wrote it was rebuked by British medical authorities. That physician has since moved to the United States.

Imperato said measles is not a benign infection and during its transmission heyday in the 1950s and before in the United States, killed up to 500 people annually and led to serious side effects, such as permanent deafness and brain damage.