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More cases of measles will be seen throughout the United States in 1989 than in any year since 1980 - and Utahns aren't immune from the serious disease.

State epidemiologist Craig Nichols said Utah is experiencing a major outbreak of measles, which is currently under investigation in Carbon, Emery, Salt Lake, Davis, Tooele, Utah and Weber counties.The State Department of Health has confirmed nine cases through lab tests; another 87 cases are suspect.

Seventeen individuals have been hospitalized as a result of the disease.

"This is the first major outbreak since 1982," Nichols said. "Normally there would be no cases of measles among Utah residents."

There have been imported cases, but they haven't spread to Utah residents. Until now.

According to Nichols, this year's outbreak was caused by an infected child coming to Utah from California, which is also experiencing a major outbreak. The child was seen in a doctor's office in southeastern Utah, where other children were exposed.

Several factors have caused the disease to spread rapidly.

"We have low immunizations among our preschool children," Nichols said. "That's been a problem we have been concerned about in Utah for several years, and have been trying to convince parents that these diseases could recur if their children are not vaccinated."

Measles is also a problem with older people - those of college age who were not immunized under the state's school immunization laws and have not been exposed to the virus.

Nichols said people born before 1957 who have been exposed to measles outbreaks have natural protection. Those who weren't vaccinated and weren't around during an outbreak are now at risk.

The risk is high.

The health expert said measles is a common cause of hearing and sight loss. Pneumonia is a common complication.

"It isn't like chicken pox where the child just stays at home and doesn't feel very good for a couple of days and feels uncomfortable," Nichols said. "Children with measles are extremely ill."

Nichols urges parents to review their immunization records to ensure their children are up to date on their measles vaccine.

Specialists at Primary Children's Medical Center recommend that children 12 months and older who have not been vaccinated be immunized. So should people who were vaccinated between 1957 and 1970, because the early measles vaccines were not as protective as the current vaccine. Adults born before 1957 probably had measles, so they would be immune.

Nichols said measles begins as a cold. Victims will have red eyes, runny noses, coughs and a bright red rash. Children will have high fevers and likely will complain of lights or noise. They will want to go to bed and stay in bed.

"If they develop any severe coughing, chest pains or difficulty breathing, pneumonia is a concern and a physician's advice should be sought," he said.

Measles is one of the most communicable diseases and can be transmitted in the air in as little as five minutes or by direct contact with respiratory secretions. The incubation period is eight to 12 days, and individuals are contagious from one to two days before the onset of symptoms and until three to four days after onset of the rash.