A sudden outbreak of the measles that began in Disneyland over the holiday season is now spreading beyond those who contracted the disease at the popular theme park. Health officials said this past weekend that the patients who had been at Disneyland are now exposing others as they have arrived in their hometowns.
There are now 51 confirmed cases of the contagious virus all across California, three additional states and Mexico. The Orange County Health Care Agency says the rapid increase in cases indicates “the measles outbreak will continue to spread.”
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Until recently, health officials had hoped to contain the disease to Disneyland guests who visited the theme park between Dec. 17 and Dec. 20, when the virus possibly spread from a single infected person or an entire ill family. Unfortunately, Orange County is now reporting six new cases of measles involving people who did not visit the park during this period.
Most of those infected never received the measles shot or were only partially immunized. “There is a rather significant marked increase in unvaccinated people,” said Dr. James Cherry, a U.C.L.A. infectious diseases expert who has studied measles outbreaks for decades. “The hope is that we can quickly get non-vaccinated people vaccinated...but this could develop into the worst measles [outbreak] ever since 1989.”
The measles outbreak between 1989 and 1991 infected more than 55,000 people nationwide, causing 11,000 hospitalizations and 120 deaths, including about 75 in California. A majority of those who died in California were under the age of 5.
There are 16 confirmed cases of the measles in Orange County. The second-hardest-hit area is San Diego County with 10 cases, nine of whom were not vaccinated. Other affected counties are those of Los Angeles (8), Alameda (4), Ventura (3), Riverside (2), and San Bernardino (2).
The other six confirmed cases involved Colorado (1), Utah (2), Washington state (2), and Mexico (1).
Efforts to contain the outbreak can depend on how much it has spread in a given community. The largest measles outbreak since 2000 occurred last March in a predominantly Amish community in Ohio; the outbreak stopped at more than 380 people after a robust campaign to administer 12,000 vaccination doses. The far-ranging spread of the current virus can make such an effort more difficult, though.
“My hope is people understand the seriousness of measles and how contagious it is, and the disease can be prevented if people will take the vaccination,” says Dr. Eric Handler, Orange County’s public health officer and a pediatrician. “If that occurs, then the likelihood of having outbreaks like this will be greatly diminished.
California state health officials say no new cases have been identified among people who attended Disneyland after Dec. 20. A measles outbreak can start in any location with large number of international travelers, such as an airport.