Measles cases are rising dramatically in France, Germany, Belgium, Romania, UK and even in some parts of the USA. Californian health authorities say that non-immunized Californians are becoming infected after traveling abroad and infected foreigners traveling from abroad into California are infecting local people. The World Health Organization, which thought the world was close to eliminating measles, has postponed the date for that target to 2015 – which most experts believe is far too early.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been 98 reported cases of measles in the USA so far this year – twice as many as one would expect in a whole year. Measles used to kill approximately 500 people each year in America. In 2000, the country declared the virtual elimination of the disease. Current measles cases in the USA are caused by unvaccinated people who have traveled abroad.

France has had over 5,000 confirmed cases of measles so far this year, and the UK is becoming alarmed as the January to April figure reached 275. Most of the patients are children and young adults.

Californian experts describe the situation in that state as “worrisome”. Although California has only seen 13 confirmed cases this year, April had more than March and March had more than February. Four of these 13 had to be admitted to hospital. As measles is a highly infectious disease that can spread rapidly, especially if it settles on unvaccinated clusters of people, health officials are concerned about what might happen in the coming months.

In the UK, as in the USA, the majority of cases are linked to either recent travel abroad or groups of mainly unvaccinated people aged ten to twenty-four years being exposed to the virus.

Health authorities in the UK are urgently reminding parents to make sure their kids get two doses of MMR vaccines before traveling to mainland Europe.

Head of immunization at the Health Protection Agency, UK, Dr Mary Ramsay, said:

“Measles is a highly infectious and dangerous illness which spreads very easily particularly in schools and universities. It is crucial that children and young adults are fully immunized with two doses of MMR.”

84% of UK children have received their second MMR vaccine by the time they are five years old, authorities say. They add that this figure is too low and should be at least 95%.

Measles is endemic is many parts of Asia and Africa. Last year large measles outbreaks were reported in Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, and Angola. Over 2000 cases have been reported in the Philippines this year.

About 90% of unvaccinated people who are exposed to measles get sick. It is transmitted via respiratory particles, especially when people sneeze and cough. However, the virus can also survive for up to two hours on dry surfaces. On average, one third of infected patients develop complications, which are can be life-threatening. Complications may include pneumonia, ear infections, serious diarrhea, acute encephalitis, and corneal ulcerations which can lead to corneal scarring. In the USA in the 1990s there were 3 deaths per 1,000 people with measles. In poor nations where malnutrition rates are high and healthcare is inadequate, up to 28% of infected people die. Approximately 30% of people with weakened immune systems, such as those with AIDS, who get measles die.

When a person becomes infected symptoms will appear about one or two weeks later. The patient will have a very high fever, there will be a cough, runny nose and watery eyes. White spots with a blue center will appear in the mouth. A rash will start on the face and work its way down the body, usually about three to five days after the onset of symptoms.

There is no treatment for measles; it has to run its course. Doctors can help treat the complications.

Written by Christian Nordqvist