International measles outbreaks pose risk to American travelers, children

WASHINGTON – Measles are making a comeback. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 129 cases have been reported in the first four months of this year — the most in any first quarter since 1996.

There are outbreaks in 13 states, with most of them clustered in California, New York City and the state of Washington.

Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Anne Schuchat — director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases — says 34 of those cases directly involve foreign travel.

“Half of those importations were from the Philippines, where there is a large outbreak occurring, with about 200,000 confirmed or suspected cases, and 69 deaths,” she says.

There have been no deaths linked to the current measles outbreak in the United States. But Schuchat says it is probably just a matter of time before someone dies of the measles here. And she urges everyone traveling abroad — especially to the Philippines — to take extra precautions.

Until now, the CDC has recommended two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine — MMR — for children between 12 and 15 months of age.

But Schuchat says given the measles outbreaks abroad, 6- to 11-month old babies should get one dose before international travel. And adults who are unsure of their vaccination records might want to get a booster shot themselves.

She spoke as the CDC released a report on progress made since the government started the Vaccines for Children Program in 1994. The program was instituted after a major measles outbreak in the United States in between 1989 and 1991 that resulted in 55,000 cases.

The program provides free vaccinations to poor and uninsured children for measles and 13 other diseases. CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden says it has prevented 332 million illnesses and 730,000 early deaths.

He says the program has had an enormous impact because “when vaccination rates go up, we are all safer.”

Most parents follow the national guidelines for immunizing their children, but there is a small but growing number who have opted out, citing personal reasons.

Schuchat says parents should remember that a child can be infected with measles for several days before the tell-tale rashes appear, and just keeping a kid away from other children with overt symptoms is not enough.

She also reminds parents who opt out that their children could pass measles to babies who are too young to immunize — and those tiny infants are at very high risk of serious complications from the disease.

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