In 2000, public health officials crowed that thanks to aggressive immunization efforts, measles had all but been eliminated in the United States.
Now they’re having to eat their words, as the number of measles cases in the U.S. hits a 20-year high — 288 as of May 23, more than in all of 2013. Washington is among the states experiencing many of the cases, and the number is expected to rise during the heavy summer travel months.
The main culprit is the growing number of unvaccinated Americans, with travel being the other most common denominator. When unvaccinated Americans travel abroad and are infected, they can bring the highly infectious virus home with them and infect other unvaccinated people.
Many of the current cases involve young American travelers in their 20s whose parents didn’t allow them to be inoculated during childhood. The Philippines is currently a measles hot spot for travelers; a big outbreak there has caused at least 41 deaths this year.,
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Health officials who were celebrating the end of measles back in 2000 didn’t count on people forgetting the toll it took in this country before immunization against it become common in the early 1960s.
Up to about 4 million Americans, mostly young children, were sickened each year in those pre-vaccination times, with about 48,000 needing hospitalization. Symptoms of the respiratory illness include fever, cough and a rash, but it can also be deadly.
Measles once resulted in about 400 to 500 children’s deaths each year, and many more cases of brain damage and deafness; 1 in 1,000 contracted encephalitis. Infected pregnant women could miscarry or give birth prematurely.
There have always been some people who objected to vaccinations on personal or religious grounds, but now the number of parents who are refusing to allow their children to get these potentially lifesaving shots seems to be growing.
Many of those parents may have good intentions, while others admit they just don’t want to bother. They’re all risking the health of their children and those who may have a legitimate medical reason for not being inoculated, including infants under 6 months old and people with suppressed immune systems.
Those traveling abroad who are unsure about their vaccination status should protect themselves and others by getting a measles shot. It’s the responsible thing to do.