Experts worry that measles could potentially become endemic to the United States again.
Pockets of unvaccinated individuals across the United States have made it possible for measles to make a startling and unexpected comeback this year.
This is the most cases of measles the country has seen since 1992, which was 2,126 cases.
Seeing as we’re nearly six months into the year, cases could very well reach — and potentially exceed — 1992’s record.
“Sadly, it is a possibility that we will reach 2,000 [cases] as we have already hit over 1,000 and we are only halfway through the year. Also, despite outbreaks, people continue to choose to not immunize their children against medical advice,” Dr. Purvi Parikh, a clinical assistant professor of pediatric infectious disease with New York University Langone Health, told Healthline.
Public health officials are working hard to increase vaccination rates in order to keep measles from becoming endemic in the United States again.
In addition, New York eliminated religious exemptions for vaccinations last week.
The state is now among five others — California, Arizona, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Maine — that do not allow religious exemptions.
While it’s too soon to predict exactly how many cases we’ll see this year, health experts predict the measles virus will continue to spread across the United States.
“Measles is the most highly contagious virus that we know of, and there are still substantial numbers of children in affected populations who are not being vaccinated, so they remain susceptible. Over time, measles will find many of these children,” said Dr. William Schaffner, the medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) and a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Some experts suspect that the number of measles cases could actually pick up over the summer months as families travel more.
This week, the CDC issued a warning to travelers going to Europe, where over 66,000 people have had measles this year. At least 90 people have died from measles in Europe this year.
Also when kids head to summer camp, even in the United States, vaccine policies tend to be less strict than at schools. Consequently, certain camps are now requiring all campers and staff members to have proof of immunity.
Many people associate measles with a rash, but the virus can be very serious, even life-threatening — especially for infants and children.
About 1 in 5 unvaccinated people who get measles will be hospitalized. And nearly 1 in 20 children who contract the measles virus will develop pneumonia, which is the most common cause of death in young children, according to
“People don’t realize that measles is more than a simple fever and rash illness. There can be severe long-term disability from measles infection,” says Dr. Christelle Ilboudo, an infectious disease expert with University of Missouri Health Care.
If many people remain unvaccinated, the measles could very well become endemic again.
“As long as there are pockets of susceptible people who contact each other, there is the potential for developing sustained transmission and becoming endemic,” Dr. Walter A. Orenstein, a professor and associate director with the Emory Vaccine Center and a previous president of the NFID, explained.
If measles becomes endemic again, WHO may rescind the United States’ elimination status.
This could have a huge global impact and diminish other countries’ efforts to eliminate measles, Schaffner predicts.
“Upon seeing the U.S. example, other countries may decide it’s not that important to eliminate measles, and they may redirect resources away from it, which would be very unfortunate,” Schaffner said.
The disease has been eliminated from the United States since 2000, and the only reason we’re seeing it again is because groups of people have refused to get vaccinated, experts say.
However, when people stop getting vaccinated, a community can lose herd immunity and diseases can return.
“An immunization is the one healthcare decision that affects other people as much as you due to herd immunity,” Parikh explained. “By vaccinating one person, you are protecting multiple and thus reducing spread of the disease.”
With measles cases popping up in multiple states, the CDC and public health officials have been working to prevent measles from reaching endemic status again.
They’re breaking down vaccination myths, ensuring people have access to vaccines, and conducting thorough investigations of each outbreak to identify the sources.
Certain communities, like New York, have declared public health emergencies and ordered mandatory vaccinations in an effort to get more people vaccinated.
While these orders have been controversial among anti-vaccine and religious freedom activists, public health officials hope it will protect public health and prevent further transmissions.
“Public health officials have an additional challenge because their responsibility is to reach out to these communities of like-minded folks who are withholding vaccination,” Schaffner said.
There’s a vast amount of people in the United States who have never seen measles, and may be especially vulnerable to misinformation, he added.
Rather than take a punitive approach, Schaffner recommends public health officials listen to people’s concerns and mindfully address their vaccine hesitancy.
“People needs facts,” he said, “but also reassurance and comfort.”
There have now been 1,044 cases of measles so far this year reported by the CDC. At this rate, there’s a chance cases of measles could reach and even exceed the 1992 record, which was 2,126 cases.
Public health officials are working hard to contain the outbreaks by breaking down vaccination myths and ensuring people have access to vaccines.