The USA now has the most measles cases in 20 years and the most since homegrown outbreaks were eliminated in 2000, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday.
The confirmed case count, as of May 23, was 288 and growing, CDC says. That number includes 138 cases from Ohio, where the biggest outbreak is ongoing – and where the actual count is 166 as of today, according to the state health department.
In any case, the total easily surpasses the recent nationwide record, which was 220 cases in 2011, CDC officials say.
"The current increase in measles cases is being driven by unvaccinated people, primarily U.S. residents, who got measles in other countries, brought the virus back to the United States and spread to others in communities where many people are not vaccinated," said a statement from Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general and director of CDC's National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases. "Many of the clusters in the U.S. began following travel to the Philippines where a large outbreak has been occurring since October 2013."
While measles remains officially "eliminated" in the USA – because all the recent outbreaks started with travelers who brought the measles virus back from other countries – the trend is not good, health officials say. Outbreaks are occurring among clusters of people with low vaccination rates.
In Ohio, all the cases so far have been in members of the Amish community, says Melanie Amato, public information officer for the state department of health.
While vaccination rates among the Amish were low, members of those communities are lining up to get vaccinated now, Amato says. The state has shipped out more than 13,000 doses of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to deal with outbreak and more than 8,000 doses have been used, she says.
But, she says, there's no signs the momentum of the outbreak has yet been broken: "We don't think it will be over any time soon. We're looking for this to continue into the summer."
The most cases, 100, have been in Knox County. "The Amish population in Knox County has been very cooperative in getting vaccinated or self-reporting (if they have symptoms) or staying home if they do get the measles," county health commissioner Julie Miller said in a statement.
She added: "We've been getting calls from people who want to know if it is safe to travel to Amish Country. The easy answer is 'yes' if you've been vaccinated. And if you haven't been vaccinated, you should be, regardless of where you are going."
Measles, once a common childhood disease in the USA, is seen so infrequently today that doctors may not always recognize symptoms. Those include fever, cough, runny nose, red eyes, sore throat and a red rash that appears after three to five days. The virus is highly contagious and spreads through the air by breathing, coughing or sneezing.