Health officials warn measles could regain foothold if record outbreaks are not contained

Health officials warn measles could regain foothold if record outbreaks are not contained
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The number of measles cases in the U.S. is continuing to climb, and federal health officials are warning that unless the outbreaks are contained, a disease that had previously been eliminated could reestablish itself.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been 704 confirmed cases of measles in 24 states as of April 26, a number that is well past the previous record of 667 cases that occurred in 2014.

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The vast majority of the cases involve children who have not been vaccinated, CDC officials said. Measles was declared eliminated in 2000, but this year’s outbreaks have been worsened by anti-vaccine groups that spread misinformation among vulnerable groups.

“Vaccine-preventable diseases belong in the history books, not in our emergency rooms,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said during a call with reporters Monday. “The suffering we are seeing today is completely avoidable. Vaccines are safe because they are among the most studied medical products we have,” 

There have been 13 total outbreaks reported in 2019, accounting for 663 cases. CDC defines an outbreak as more than three cases reported. But the high number of cases in 2019 is primarily the result of a few large outbreaks — one in Washington state and two large outbreaks in New York that started in late 2018.

Public health officials in Washington state declared the outbreak over last Friday with a total of 72 cases, but the two outbreaks in New York City and New York state are ongoing, and are among the largest and longest lasting since measles's elimination in 2000.

There is also now a growing outbreak in California, where hundreds of college students were quarantined after being exposed to one person who attended classes at the University of California at Los Angeles while contagious.

Azar said that the longer these outbreaks continue, the greater the chance measles will again get a sustained foothold in the country.

Azar said he has long been a proponent of vaccines, and pushed back against claims that President TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE’s previous views on vaccines caused his agency to delay speaking out to urge parents to vaccinate their children.

We have been very active across the entire department,” Azar said and noted that he has shared op-eds by U.S. health officials and publicly received a flu shot.

“I have been a proponent that vaccines are one of the biggest public health advances of the 20th century,” Azar said.

While the outbreaks were initially met with silence from the White House, Trump on Friday finally spoke up and urged parents to vaccinate their children against measles.

“They have to get the shots. The vaccinations are so important,” Trump told reporters at the White House. "This is really going around now. They have to get their shots."

Azar on Monday praised Trump for his comments last week urging parents to vaccinate their children. Trump in the past has voiced skepticism over the safety of vaccines, and on multiple occasions has voiced support for the debunked theory that vaccines cause autism.

Azar said he was "delighted" by Trump's leadership on the issue.

"The president last week was very firm that people need to get their shots. Vaccinations are so important," Azar said.

"Some years ago there was a debate about this issue that was partly fueled by data that has since been discredited," he continued. "The scientific community has generated new and definitive information, and we can definitely reassure every parent there is no link between autism and vaccination."

Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said the outbreaks won’t stop unless community members, health officials and other groups like rabbinical associations work together to identify unvaccinated people at risk of infection.

“We should expect to see additional cases. These outbreaks can end with all groups working together, but we can expect to see additional cases before this is over,” Messonnier said.

Updated at 5:15 p.m.