March 19, 2014 -- Measles, a highly contagious and dangerous virus, was thought to have been eradicated from the U.S. with vaccines -- but in recent years outbreaks have been occurring at an alarming rate.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports there was an average of 83 measles cases annually from 2001 to 2011, however for 2014 there have already been 79 cases reported. This is the second year in a row with an increased number of measles cases, in 2013 there were 189 cases of measles reported.
The increase has left health officials and health care centers working to keep infected patients contained and separate from vulnerable populations as they seek treatment.
After an outbreak in northern Manhattan, New York-Presbyterian Hospital sent an email on March 12 to its staff that “nearly 600 patients had potentially been exposed to measles," according to the New York Times. Additionally the Times reported that the email said “many of our clinical staff have never seen a case of measles.”
The New York City Department of Health said the outbreak affected 20 people in northern Manhattan. However, the Department said that although people were exposed at different medical facilities, no one has gotten sick from a hospital patient.
Officials from New York-Presbyterian Hospital sent a statement to ABC News saying after the measles outbreak they “have been communicating with our staff to heighten awareness of its signs and symptoms.” Additionally they “have no evidence that any patient has contracted measles at our hospital.”
One difficulty in stopping the spread of measles is the fact that it is highly contagious and initially presents with symptoms that could hint at a variety of infections, according to experts.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said very, very few doctors would have ever seen a case of measles while in training and many times the disease is diagnosed in its later stages.
The vaccination program to eradicate the disease started in 1963.
“As measles disappeared first of all the old hands [older doctors] retired, and secondly measles was not emphasized in medical education. They’ve seen one picture of a child with measles if that,” said Schaffner of medical students. “Since it isn’t around, there isn’t reinforcement.”
Before the vaccination program began approximately 48,000 people were sent to the hospital after contracting the disease and approximately 400 people died annually, according to the CDC.
Measles presents initially as a cough, runny nose and eyes and conjunctivitis. As the disease progresses the tell-tale rash appears.
Doctors said the measles are extremely contagious and a contagious person can expect to infect nine out of every 10 unvaccinated people they come into contact with. In the U.S. measles outbreaks usually involve an unvaccinated person who contracted the disease abroad and then infected other unvaccinated people when they returned.
The virus can lead to ear infections, pneumonia or encephalitis, where the brain and surrounding membrane swells. The CDC estimates that one to two out of every 1,000 children with the disease die from it.
The vaccine is usually given in two doses with the first does given when a child is between 12-15 months old and the second before entering school, between four to six years of age. Infants as young as six months can get the vaccine, but should still get the following two doses to have full immunity. The elderly and other immunocompromised people are also more vulnerable to the disease.