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MEASLES - NOT JUST FOR KIDS ANYMORE

Measles, the scourge of childhood, is spreading its scratchy red spots in growing numbers among adults, particularly those whose religious beliefs prohibit vaccinations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday that in the first half of the year, there were 730 measles cases - more than four times the 167 reported during the same period in 1993 and more than double the 1993 total of 312.About 45 percent of the 1994 cases resulted from a single outbreak started by an unknown skier who visited a Colorado ski resort this spring and then infected unvaccinated high school or college students. Most were followers of Christian Science, a religion that shuns medical care, or had not received the full dose of vaccine.

Utah had an outbreak of at least 70 cases last spring, primarily among polygamist families opposed to immunization, state health officials said at that time.

Measles hit a record low in 1993, and despite the large spring outbreak, which spread to at least 10 states, this year "is on track to be the second lowest year ever," said Dr. Charles Vitek of the CDC's National Immunization Program.

The CDC noted that the 1994 reports show measles has shifted from generally infecting young children to adults.

Since 1991, the proportion of measles among children under age 5 has decreased from about 50 percent to 24 percent so far this year.

The proportion for older children and adults has risen.

For children age 5-19, the proportion jumped from 33 percent in 1991 to 51 percent his year. For those over 20, it increased from 18 percent to 26 percent, according to Vitek.

He said the decrease among preschoolers was due to the success of federal and state vaccination programs, while the increase in the older age groups was partly attributed to incomplete immunizations.

The director of the CDC, Dr. David Satcher, said the report demonstrated the potential for measles to re-emerge as well as the need for programs like the Clinton administration's immunization initiative.

"The most important point to be made is that measles remains a significant health threat for children who have not been vaccinated," he said.

"Indeed, more than 1 million children in the United States still need one or more doses of vaccine to complete the recommended series of vaccines. These children are at risk," Satcher said.

Though usually benign, measles can be fatal.

In the 1940s and early '50s, 500 to 1,000 people died of measles each year. But the measles vaccine, introduced in 1963, has made measles so rare that many physicians today have never seen a case and sometimes mistake it for other diseases.