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Measles not a threat in Pennsylvania despite nationwide outbreak

Emily Balser
| Friday, Aug. 17, 2018, 6:27 p.m.

Pennsylvania is among 21 states reporting a measles outbreak, but state health officials said they don’t consider Pennsylvania to be more at-risk than other years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 107 people from 21 states had measles from January 1 to July 14.

Pennsylvania Health Department spokesman Nate Wardle said Pennsylvania has seen measles cases eight of the last 10 years and this year’s numbers aren’t a cause for a heightened concern.

“We’ve had two cases this year, which isn’t abnormal for us,” he said.

One of those cases, a Carnegie Mellon University student, was confirmed in Allegheny County in January.

Wardle wouldn’t identify where the other case was confirmed, citing that the health department doesn’t release the location to protect the patient’s identity. He said there was no public notification in that case because the person didn’t come into contact with anyone while infected.

Wardle said the state health department encourages everyone to get the recommended vaccines to prevent diseases from spreading to vulnerable parts of the population such as babies too young to be vaccinated and people with compromised immune systems.

“It’s important for people to know the measles vaccine is extremely effective,” he said. “It’s very important not just personally for yourself and your loved ones, but also to help protect other people who can’t get vaccines, to make sure you are immunized.”

Dr. Kristen Mertz, Allegheny County Health Department epidemiologist, echoed that sentiment.

“ACHD strongly supports the vaccination of children in accordance with the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommendations,” she said in an e-mailed statement. “Vaccination not only protects those vaccinated from severe illness and death, but it can save a family time and money if a child develops a vaccine-preventable disease.”

A recent study published in thePublic Library of Science journal PLOS Medicine examined the areas where non-medical exemptions are permitted and cases of measles in those areas. The Pittsburgh metro region had previously been identified as a one of 15 “hot spots” with more than 400 unvaccinated students entering kindergarten in the 2015-16 school year, but that designation was later retracted after researchers found an error in the data.

The number of unvaccinated children for that school year was closer to 200, which is not considered a “hot spot.”

Pittsburgh-based infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh Adalja, said the measles numbers across the country are still a cause for concern because the disease was previously considered eliminated from the United States, but has made a comeback in recent years.

“Measles is probably the most highly contagious infectious disease,” he said. “It’s important to remember…measles kills in the tens of thousands every year.”

Adalja, who is also a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said people in the United States don’t typically see the most devastating outcomes of measles because of vaccines and medical treatment. However, it’s still common in Europe and is making a resurgence in South America as well.

“One in 1,000 (people) may die from measles,” he said. “It’s not something you should take lightly.”

Adalja said vaccination is really the only way to prevent the measles, especially heading into the school year where children will be in close quarters.

“It lingers in the air so that’s very hard for any kind of school district to deal with,” he said. “The best means of controlling measles is the vaccine.”

Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Emily at 724-226-4680, emilybalser@tribweb.com or via Twitter @emilybalser.

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