With Lowest U.S. Vaccination Rate, USVI Vulnerable to Measles Outbreak

Syringe. (Public Domain)

The V.I. governor, local senators and Department of Health officials are urging residents to make sure they are caught up on their vaccinations amid the largest measles outbreak since measles was first eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. Adding to worries for V.I. residents, the U.S. Virgin Islands has the lowest MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination rate in the United States, putting 30 percent of residents at risk. And a cruise ship is currently quarantined at St. Lucia with a measles outbreak.

According to the latest National Immunization Survey, as of 2016, the USVI has about 70.5 percent MMR immunization for children between 19 and 35 months old; the lowest in the nation.

Measles causes a fever and unpleasant rash. It can also lead to ear infections, diarrhea, and infection of the lungs (pneumonia). Rarely, measles can cause brain damage or death according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is especially dangerous to those with suppressed immune systems. High vaccination rates reduce transmission rates by reducing the number of potential carriers.

Measles has not been reported in the Virgin Islands this year.

But according to the CDC, more than 700 people have been infected with measles this year- the greatest number since 1994. Measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000 but has recently seen a resurgence due to declining vaccination levels.

The “Freewinds,” a Scientology-owned cruise ship, is currently quarantined at port in St. Lucia due to a measles outbreak. (Image from the Freewinds website)

A cruise ship owned by the Church of Scientology, the “Freewinds,” is currently quarantined in St. Lucia and no one is being allowed to disembark until the contagion passes.

In 2018, the U.S. Virgin Islands saw over 1.4 million cruise passengers and 477,840 air arrivals.

“The Department of Health is closely monitoring the recent outbreak of the measles virus in the U.S. and has launched a public information campaign to educate residents about the virus,” Gov. Albert Bryan said in a statement Thursday. The department is also offering vaccinations at DOH clinics.

“We need to take all steps necessary to ensure that residents are protected,” Senate President Kenneth Gittens said in a statement.

“We have visitors coming in from around the world on a daily basis and we as Virgin Islanders are very mobile – there is a very real chance for exposure. I do not want to alarm anyone, but we must ensure all necessary precautions.”

Gittens urged Virgin Islanders to discuss vaccination records with their doctors if they are unsure about their risk of contracting measles.

Sen. Oakland Benta said that while no one has died in this outbreak, the CDC is reporting several have been hospitalized due to complications from the disease.

“Measles is highly contagious and can spread to others through coughing and sneezing. Early symptoms include a high fever, cough, runny nose and red watery eyes. Two or three days later small white spots may appear inside the mouth. Within three to five days the red measles rash breaks out on the face and spreads down the body to the feet. The patient’s fever may go to 104 degrees or higher. Let’s do right by our children and make sure they are well protected,” Benta said.

The CDC reports that the virus likely spread through the United States via an un-vaccinated traveler who visited a country where there is widespread measles transmission.

“This current outbreak is deeply troubling and I call upon all healthcare providers to assure patients about the efficacy and safety of the measles vaccine,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a statement.

“I encourage all Americans to adhere to CDC vaccine guidelines in order to protect themselves, their families, and their communities from measles and other vaccine preventable diseases. We must work together as a nation to eliminate this disease once and for all,” Redfield said

The high number of cases in 2019 is primarily the result of a few large outbreaks – one in Washington State and two large outbreaks in New York that started in late 2018. The outbreaks in New York City and New York State are among the largest and longest lasting since measles elimination in 2000. The longer these outbreaks continue, the greater the chance measles will again get a sustained foothold in the United States, according to the CDC.

The World Health Organization reported this month that there has been a 300 percent increase in the number of measles cases worldwide compared with the first three months of 2018. That increase is part of a global trend seen over the past few years as countries, including the U.S., struggle with declining vaccination rates.

The states that have reported cases to the CDC are Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas, Tennessee, and Washington.