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Vaccine-hesitant parents, travelers to Philippines blamed for measles outbreak

Federal health officials issued a Level 1 health watch for travelers to and from the Philippines.
Federal health officials issued a Level 1 health watch for travelers to and from the Philippines.Jpatokal / Wikimedia Commons

Federal health officials issued a Level 1 health watch for travelers to and from the Philippines, citing that country's measles outbreak as a source of disease among unvaccinated children in the U.S.

Measles (also called rubeola) is a highly contagious virus that can spread through the air from person to person. It can be serious, even fatal for small children.

There has been a recent resurgence of measles since the year 2000 when the disease was nearly eliminated by vaccine prevention efforts.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 189 people had contracted measles—the largest number of annual cases in the U.S. since 2000.

Now—in only the first two months of 2014—at least 53 people in 10 states have been infected.

"Part of the problem is vaccine hesitancy," said Matthew Zahn, M.D., Medical Director of Epidemiology at the Orange County Health Care Agency.

A growing number of parents in the U.S. forgo the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine for their children because of an alleged connection between vaccines and autism.

"There is no scientific basis for such a connection," said Zahn. "It's been repeatedly disproved."

Still, efforts to educate parents about vaccines are falling short, according to an article published online March 3 and in the April print issue of Pediatrics.

"Many primary care pediatricians find vaccine hesitancy to be one of the most frustrating situations that they face," noted the authors.

"Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children implicitly call into question an intervention that most pediatricians see as one of the safest and most effective health care interventions of all time."

Further complicating the debate, the CDC now has issued a measles-related health watch for travel to the Philippines.

According to the Department of Health of the Philippines, 1,163 cases of measles and a number of deaths were reported in the Southeast Asian country during the first two weeks of 2014.

In Orange County, California, health officials have confirmed four cases of measles so far this year.

"At least one of these cases did involve travel to the Philippines," said Zahn. "In California and the U.S., part of the issue is travel to and from the Philippines."

The World Health Organization and the Philippines Department of Health are working to control the outbreak, including conducting outbreak response vaccination activities.

The CDC recommends that travelers to the Philippines protect themselves by making sure they're properly vaccinated against measles.

"If you have not been vaccinated, get two doses of the MMR vaccine," said Zahn. "There's no risk. It's 99% effective. If you've already been vaccinated, the protection is lifelong."

Zahn notes that for those who don't remember if they've been vaccinated for measles, "there's no harm in getting an extra dose. It's never a bad thing."

-- Brett Grodeck