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Will U.S. lose ‘measles-free’ status?

There have been 1,200 recorded cases in the U.S. so far this year, a significant increase from 372 in 2018.

A measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is displayed in Provo Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The United States has held measles elimination status for nearly 20 years, but that might be about to change, according to a report from Vox.

There have been 1,200 recorded cases of the measles in the U.S. so far this year, says a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was released earlier this month. That is the highest number of cases since 1992, and a significant increase from 2018, which saw 372 cases.

This uptick in documented measles cases could lead to the U.S. losing its measles elimination status, which was conferred by the World Health Organization in 2000, according to CNN. This status can be removed from a country when the disease has been spreading continuously for at least one year.

Over 75% of the measles cases in 2019 are from New York, Vox reports.

A CDC spokesperson told Vox, “If transmission continues in New York, elimination status for measles will end when there is any measles case connected to that outbreak on or after October.”

Two of the larger outbreaks in New York have been affecting children in the tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community, whose parents chose not to vaccinate them, according to CNN.

As Vox explains, in order to keep the disease from spreading, around 95% of community members have to be vaccinated, which creates “herd immunity.” When at least that many people are vaccinated, then others who can’t be vaccinated are still protected from the disease. Measles is more contagious than other vaccinated diseases, such as polio, and so requires a higher percentage rate to achieve herd immunity.

This is why more insular communities, such as the Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, that choose not to vaccinate are at higher risk for outbreaks.

Peter Hotez, a professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College, told Vox, “The fact that measles is back is a worrying sign there’s a problem nationally in our immunization system, that there’s been a breakdown.”

Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, agrees.

She told CNN, “It certainly is incredibly frustrating and upsetting to the public health community that we may lose measles elimination status, because we do have a safe and effective vaccine.”