Explainer: Low vaccination rates, global outbreaks fuel U.S. measles spread

A measles poster is seen at Venice Family Clinic in Los Angeles, California February 5, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

By Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – A measles outbreak that has stricken at least 225 people in New York state since October began with a traveler who visited Israel during the Jewish high holidays and returned to a predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Rockland County.

A similar pattern unfolded three months later and nearly 3,000 miles (4,800 km) away when a person who visited Eastern Europe returned to a community with strong ties to a local church group in Vancouver, Washington. More than 50 people fell ill there.

In both instances, U.S. travelers picked up measles in foreign countries where the highly contagious disease was running rampant and brought it back to places where vaccination rates were too low by U.S. public health standards, setting off the worst outbreaks seen in those states in decades.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says New York’s outbreak marks the highest tally of imported cases since measles was declared eradicated in the United States in 2000.

The two outbreaks appear to be winding down, health officials say, after concerted efforts to pinpoint the origins and isolate and inoculate those who were exposed but unprotected and educate parents who had resisted vaccines.

The disease has spread mostly among school-age children whose parents declined to get them vaccinated. Most cited philosophical or religious reasons, or concerns – debunked by medical science – that the three-way vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) could cause autism, authorities said.

New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said another key factor was mere “complacency” in an age where the potential ravages of measles are unfamiliar to parents who came of age after the vaccine was introduced in 1957.

In Rockland County, the suburb north of Manhattan accounting for the bulk of cases, the state has vaccinated 15,000 children since the outbreak began there last autumn, Zucker said. The Brooklyn borough of New York City was another hot spot.

Still, officials say the measles crisis in New York and Washington states offer a lesson about the importance of maintaining a minimum level of “herd” immunization against dangerous, preventable diseases such as measles.

It also highlights the global nature of disease control, in which a hot spot of infection in one country can ignite a distant outbreak in an immunization-weak spot of another, said Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington’s top epidemiologist.

Here are some key facts about measles and immunization, according to public health experts and the CDC.

WHAT IMMUNIZATION RATES ARE IDEAL?

A 95 percent rate of immunization is required to provide sufficient “herd” protection in a given population. Rates as low as 60 percent were found in parts of New York where measles spread, Zucker said.

HOW BAD CAN MEASLES GET?

Symptoms typically include high fever, cough, runny nose and watery eyes, followed by tiny white spots inside the mouth and a red rash that can cover the body.

Serious and potentially fatal complications, especially in young children and pregnant women, can include pneumonia and swelling of the brain. Ear infections occur in about 10 percent of children with measles and can lead to permanent hearing loss.

One rare but fatal complication is subacute panencephalitis (SSPE), which can attack the central nervous system seven to 10 years after a person has recovered from measles.

HOW CONTAGIOUS IS MEASLES?

Measles is spread through casual contact with the virus, which can linger and remain infectious in the air of an enclosed space for up to two hours after it is breathed out by someone carrying the disease. The rate of transmission from an infected person to another individual nearby who lacks immunity is about 90 percent.

ORIGINS OF LATEST OUTBREAKS?

Health authorities say the strain of the virus identified in Washington state matches the one circulating widely in Ukraine since last year. The New York outbreak has been tracked back to separate flare-ups of measles in Israel and in Eastern Europe.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

Travel snarled, power outages as storm bears down on U.S. Northeast

A woman walks during rain while the New York skyline and the One World Trade Center are seen from Exchange Place in New Jersey, U.S., March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The second winter storm within a week crept into New York and surrounding states on Wednesday, with forecasters predicting intensifying snowfall that could snarl the evening commute as thousands remained without power from the last nor’easter.

Between 4 and 12 inches (10 and 30 cm) of snow were forecast for New York City and the surrounding suburbs in New Jersey and Connecticut through to Thursday morning, with wind gusts creating “near-whiteout conditions” for commuters, the National Weather Service said on Wednesday.

The storm will spread with varying degrees of intensity across the Northeast, from western Pennsylvania up into New England, and officials took precautions.

New York’s three major airlines reported a total of 1,431 canceled flights on Wednesday morning, about 40 percent of their normally scheduled flights.

All schools were closed in Philadelphia while schools across the region canceled classes or shortened the school day ahead of the storm, local news media reported. Schools stayed open in New York City.

This week’s storm was not forecast to have the hurricane-strength winds whipped up at times by the storm last week, but forecasters say strong gusts of 60 miles per hour (96.56 km per hour) and accumulated snow will still be enough to knock down more power lines.

Last week’s storm brought major coastal flooding to Massachusetts, killed at least nine people and knocked out power to about 2.4 million homes and businesses in the Northeast.

Some 100,000 homes and businesses in the region remained without power on Wednesday. A nor’easter is an East Coast storm in which winds blow from the northeast.

The governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania declared states of emergency, giving them access to support from the U.S. government if needed.

The Amtrak passenger train service canceled some Wednesday trains between Washington and Boston, as well as some services in Pennsylvania, New York state and other parts of the Northeast.

The storm got off to an uncertain start in New York City, where the air was damp, and the odd stray snowflake could be spotted, but many early commuters saw no reason to unfurl the umbrellas stashed under their arms.

“I was expecting more than this,” Michelle Boone, 50, said as she waited for a bus to get to her job at a Manhattan homeless shelter. “I’m happy it’s not doing what they said it was going do. This evening could be different, though.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York; additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

New York Senate Expected To Block Abortion Expansion

Republicans in the New York State Senate are expected to block a bill from the state Assembly that would expand abortion into the third trimester.

The bill, AB6221, was approved by the Assembly on Tuesday 94-49.

“The state shall not deny a woman’s right to obtain an abortion as established by the United States Supreme Court in the decision Roe v. Wade,” the bill reads. “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, New York protects a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy within 24 weeks from commencement of her pregnancy, or when necessary to protect a woman’s life or health as determined by a licensed physician.”

The bill had been part of a “women’s equality” bill but was separated into a stand-alone bill.

The head of New York State Right to Life told LifeNews that the bill shows the power of the abortion lobby in the state.

“Expanding cruel and brutal third-trimester abortions has long been a goal of the anti-life lobby who never met an abortion they didn’t like,” Lori Kehoe, New York State Right to Life executive director, told LifeNews. “With no regard for the fully developed unborn baby who is violently dismembered, or otherwise killed, the New York State Assembly once again put the abortion lobby above New York State women and their children.”