US measles cases rise to 839 as outbreak shows no signs of slowing down

The rising number is prompting state lawmakers to limit exemptions for parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids

Published May 13, 2019 6:55PM (EDT)

A one dose bottle of measles, mumps and rubella virus vaccine, made by MERCK, is held up at the Salt Lake County Health Department on April 26, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Getty/George Frey)
A one dose bottle of measles, mumps and rubella virus vaccine, made by MERCK, is held up at the Salt Lake County Health Department on April 26, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Getty/George Frey)

The U.S. is getting closer to breaking the record for the number of confirmed measles cases in 2019, after health officials on Monday revealed 75 additional cases were reported in the last week.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified 839 cases of measles in 23 states across the country as of May 10, with the outbreak showing no signs of slowing down.

This is already the worst year for measles in the country since 2014, when 667 cases were reported for the whole year. It also marks the largest outbreak across the nation since the highly contagious virus was declared eradicated in 2000. In total, the number of cases is inching closer to the record 963 reported back in 1994.

The states which have reported cases to the CDC are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee and Washington.

No new states reported outbreaks in the past week, although the number of cases in New York, home to the largest outbreak in the country, continued to surge. The outbreak in the Empire State has primarily occurred in New York City and in nearby Rockland County, which has reported 225 cases in the past seven months.

Most of the New York cases have involved unvaccinated individuals in Orthodox Jewish communities living in certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. There have been 466 confirmed cases of measles in those areas since September, New York public health officials said.

The CDC said the outbreak was linked to unvaccinated travelers returning to the U.S. from countries where measles is still common — including Israel, the Philippines and the Ukraine — and to widespread misinformation about vaccines which has frightened a generation of parents from vaccinating their children from an incredibly infectious disease.

Several cities have imposed emergency measures to try to stem the spread of the virus. The flare-up of the disease has prompted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) to declare a public health emergency and order mandatory vaccinations for individuals living in specific ZIP codes in Brooklyn. Anyone who does not comply with the order faces a misdemeanor charge and fines up to $1,000.

The confirmed cases in New York have disproportionately affected children. Out of the 466 confirmed cases in the Empire State, 388 cases were reported in those under 18 years of age. In contrast, 78 adults were infected with the virus. As of May 6, New York officials said 22,833 doses of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine have been administered since October to people who are under 19 years old in Brooklyn.

Other states have also taken steps to limit exemptions for parents who do not wish to vaccinate their children. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is also running for the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nomination, signed a bill Friday that removed personal or philosophical exemptions from the MMR vaccine.

"We should be listening to science and medicine — not social media," Inslee said during a press conference. "It is science and truth that will keep us healthy rather than fear."

The outbreak in Washington has forced schools to exclude hundreds of unvaccinated students from class, cost public health authorities at least $1 million and prompted Inslee to declare a public health emergency.

Maine legislatures are also debating a bill that would eliminate "philosophical" objections to avoid vaccinations but keep religious ones in place. The state has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.

Only three states already bar all non-medical exemptions for vaccinations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: California, Mississippi and West Virginia.

By Shira Tarlo

MORE FROM Shira Tarlo