Red Cross and UNICEF medics administer polio and measles vaccinations to children at an evacuation center for typhoon survivors on Nov. 26, 2013, more than two weeks after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the city of Tacloban, Leyte province in central Philippines. (Bullit Marquez / AP)
Washington— After declaring in 2000 that measles had been eliminated from the U.S. through a successful vaccination program, government officials now say the number of confirmed cases has reached a 20-year high as people who get the disease abroad bring it back to America.
In the last five months, measles have caused more U.S. illnesses than in any entire year since 1996.
Health officials say 307 cases have been reported since New Year’s Day. About half have been in the past month — most from a huge outbreak in unvaccinated Amish communities in Ohio.
That’s a blistering start, even before the customary spurt of cases seen in the late spring and summer, health officials noted.
“Measles has reached a 20-year high. This is not the kind of record we want to break,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unvaccinated residents in the U.S. and foreign visitors who traveled to the Philippines, Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific are the main culprits in the growing spike of measles cases.
The overwhelming majority of U.S. cases are among people who have chosen to go unvaccinated for personal, religious or philosophical reasons, said Schuchat.
The public is being urged to be fully vaccinated — especially before traveling overseas.
The measles virus is highly contagious, spreading easily through the air and in closed rooms. Infected droplets can linger for up to two hours after the sick person leaves.
It causes a fever, runny nose, cough and a rash all over the body. In rare cases, measles can be deadly, and is particularly dangerous for children. Infection can also cause pregnant women to have a miscarriage or premature birth.
According to CDC records, the last time the nation saw this many cases in an entire year was 1996, when 508 were reported.
Associated Press contributed.