The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday that 1,001 cases of measles have been reported so far in the U.S. throughout 2019.
That number is all but certain to continue climbing in the second half of the year. Last week, the CDC warned that U.S. measles cases had reached a 25-year high—with more measles infections reported than any year since 1994, when 958 cases occurred. The CDC said at the time that if the outbreaks continue to spread, the U.S. risks losing the elimination status it has held since 2000, when the agency declared that measles was effectively eradicated in the country due to the “absence of continuous disease transmission for greater than 12 months.”
Per CNN, more than half of states have reported cases so far in 2019. But most of them have been in New York state, with major outbreaks centered around Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens (566 since September 2018, according to the New York City Health Department) as well as Rockland County further upstate. Nearly 700 of the cases reported this year are located in New York. Washington state’s Clark County had the second largest outbreak at more than 70 cases, CNN added, while another outbreak of 44 cases in Michigan (all but four in Oakland County) was recently declared over by health officials.
Measles was once a terror, with the CDC estimating that three to four million individuals in the U.S. came down with the virus annually before a vaccine was released in 1963, resulting in 48,000 hospitalizations and 400-500 deaths a year. Close to all children had a measles infection by the age of 15.
In 2014, the CDC estimated that vaccinations administered to children born during the 20-year era since the beginning of the Vaccines for Children Program in 1994 had stopped 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths in their lifetimes. That program was partially launched in response to hundreds of deaths from the measles virus over the years 1989-1991.
The well-established opinion of the medical and scientific community, reiterated over the course of countless studies, is that vaccines are safe and effective. One major factor in the measles’ resurgence has been a decline in vaccination rates, with factors including families missing doctor’s visits (in some reasons, possibly due to lack of access) and a troubling growth in those who ask for non-medical exemptions.
The non-medical exemption rate appears to be tied to anti-vaxxers, a movement of conspiracy theorists with an anti-government tinge who parrot any number of false claims about vaccines, most notably that they cause a range of ailments from autism to non-existent conditions like “vaccine overload.” Reports have indicated that anti-vaxxers have become alarmingly organized in recent years, driven in part by the ease of spreading misinformation on social media sites.
Members of the movement staged a rally in Washington state to oppose legislation that restricted non-medical vaccine exemptions earlier this year. (They were mostly unsuccessful in stopping its passage, with legislators deciding only to remove the exemptions for the mumps, measles, and rubella vaccine.) Other reports indicated that a small but dedicated anti-vax group with ties to national anti-vax organizations had blanketed some of the impacted neighborhoods in NYC with propaganda fliers.
In the CDC’s news release, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that U.S. health authorities have “the ultimate goal of stopping the outbreak and the spread of misinformation about vaccines.”
“We cannot say this enough: Vaccines are a safe and highly effective public health tool that can prevent this disease and end the current outbreak,” Azar said. “The measles vaccine is among the most-studied medical products we have and is given safely to millions of children and adults each year. Measles is an incredibly contagious and dangerous disease. I encourage all Americans to talk to your doctor about what vaccines are recommended to protect you, your family, and your community from measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases.”