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The U.S. is dealing with its worst measles outbreak in 25 years, and experts say these cases are fueled by a global surge in the disease. The World Health Organization counted more than 100,000 cases of measles in the first quarter of this year. That figure is up by more than 300%, compared to the same period a year ago. NPR's Jason Beaubien has more.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Dr. James Goodson at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says the U.S. measles cases are a direct result of the outbreaks abroad.
JAMES GOODSON: When we see large measles outbreaks in other countries that are common destinations for travelers from the U.S., that's when we often see the largest number of measles cases in the U.S. like we're seeing this year.
BEAUBIEN: Madagascar is grappling with a measles outbreak that sickened 70,000 people and killed more than a thousand. Ukraine had a similar number of cases. There are ongoing measles outbreaks in the Philippines, India, Romania, Brazil and Venezuela. There have been smaller flare-ups in popular vacation destinations like France, Greece and Israel. And it's unvaccinated travelers who are the problem. They're the ones who are bringing the virus into the U.S.
GOODSON: The only reservoir for measles virus is people, so the only way you're going to get measles is if you come in contact with somebody who's infected with measles.
BEAUBIEN: For the first few days, someone infected with measles might not even know they're sick. Yet they're spreading the highly contagious airborne virus on the plane, in airports and to other unvaccinated people.
GOODSON: The only way that measles is still surviving today is through transmission through unimmunized people.
BEAUBIEN: To completely stop the spread of measles, epidemiologists say 95% of a community needs to be immune to the disease, yet the global vaccination rate stands at about 87%. The U.S. is at 92% coverage. Some countries have measles immunization rates well below 60%. The reasons for this are varied. Some places simply don't have the resources to refrigerate and distribute vaccines. Others had the resources, like Syria and Venezuela, but lost them in the midst of civil strife. Some places like Romania have seen growing resistance to vaccines. Dr. Robin Nandy, UNICEF's chief of immunization based in New York, says most of these scenarios are playing out in Ukraine.
ROBIN NANDY: The Ukraine is a complex situation.
BEAUBIEN: Over the last 12 months, Ukraine recorded just over 72,000 cases, the most of any country in the world. There's been a very high-profile and vocal anti-vaccination campaign in Ukraine. It's had armed clashes between the government and pro-Russian separatists. Ukrainians report high levels of distrust towards their government, which Nandy says also applies to the health system.
NANDY: They've had, also, systems break down. They've had vaccine shortages that undermine community confidence, you know, towards the health services.
BEAUBIEN: Nandy says the challenge in trying to get global measles vaccination rates up above 95% is that there's no one-size-fits-all solution. And he says the potential for more large measles outbreaks exists right now in many parts of the world.
NANDY: You know, there are countries today with low vaccination coverage who are not having outbreaks, currently. But that doesn't mean that they're not going to have outbreaks tomorrow. They're extremely susceptible to outbreaks at any time.
BEAUBIEN: And if that happens, it increases the chances that there'll be more measles outbreaks here in the United States, too. Jason Beaubien, NPR News.
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