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2019 has seen the most measles cases in 20 years, CDC says

A dangerous comeback

A photo of a patient with a rash taken at a New York Hospital in 1958. Photo by CDC via Getty Images

Measles just hit a major milestone as it spreads across the country, infecting the most people since the year 2000, when public health officials declared the virus eliminated in the US. Thanks to the anti-vaccination movement, the virus has come roaring back.

The case count has climbed to 695 people infected across 22 different states, driven in part by outbreaks that have lingered in New York and Washington, according to a statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stopping these ongoing outbreaks as soon as possible will be critical, the CDC says. “The longer these outbreaks continue, the greater the chance measles will again get a sustained foothold in the United States,” the CDC said in a statement.

Measles, recognized for its rash, can also cause pneumonia, brain swelling, and death. The Measles, Mumps, and Rubella — or MMR — vaccine is safe and can ward off measles infections. But some people, like children under one year old and those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons, rely on the rest of us being vaccinated to keep the notoriously contagious virus from spreading.

If everyone who can get vaccinated does, outbreaks are small to non-existent, the CDC says. But when someone with measles visits a community that isn’t adequately vaccinated, the outbreak can metastasize. That’s because a sneeze can squirt the virus into the air, where it can stick around for up to two hours. And 90 percent of unvaccinated people who are exposed to someone with the infection will catch it.

The CDC points to inadequate vaccination and the rise of vaccine misinformation as a driver of the New York outbreaks, in particular. “Some organizations are deliberately targeting these communities with inaccurate and misleading information about vaccines,” the CDC says. Vox reported earlier this month that anti-vaxx organizations have directed fear-mongering misinformation about the health risks of vaccines at orthodox Jewish communities in New York.

Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, tried to calm the fearful in a statement today. “The measles vaccines are among the most extensively studied medical products we have, and their safety has been firmly established over many years in some of the largest vaccine studies ever undertaken,” he said. “With a safe and effective vaccine that protects against measles, the suffering we are seeing is avoidable.”