Federal health officials have tracked 54 cases of measles in the U.S. so far this year, including a dozen in people who had recently traveled to the Philippines.
Experts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they hope it’s not the start of a spike of imported cases of measles, which can spread easily to people who are not vaccinated or otherwise immune to the disease.
“Measles spreads very quickly in an unvaccinated setting,” said Dr. Jane Seward, the CDC’s deputy director for the division of viral diseases. Last year, at least 189 measles cases were reported in the U.S., which eradicated home-grown measles cases in 2000. In an average year, the U.S. might see 60 cases of measles.
CDC is warning travelers to be properly vaccinated when traveling to the Philippines, where 1,163 cases of measles were reported in early January and the World Health Organization and local officials are working to control the outbreak.
In addition to the cases in travelers to the Philippines, another 10 measles cases were detected in people who brought the disease from other countries, Seward said. The remaining 32 cases have been in people who got the measles from those sources, or didn’t know how they became infected, she added.
The count includes an unvaccinated California college student who traveled to the Philippines, caught measles, and then infected his two brothers — and potentially exposed thousands of others by going to classes and riding mass transit in the week before he fell ill, health officials said.
All told, 21 of the 54 cases have been detected in California, Seward said.
Measles is a highly contagious disease that infects 90 percent of those who aren’t already immune to it, either through vaccination or earlier illness. It can cause serious illness, particularly in children, including seizures, permanent brain damage or deafness.
Eighteen of the imported cases were in unvaccinated U.S. residents who contracted measles abroad, including seven cases in young children. Four cases were in foreign travelers.
CDC officials urge parents of children as young as 6 months to get vaccinated against measles before traveling abroad. “You can get measles anywhere,” Seward said.