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Measles' scary comeback

Sedgwick County and Kansas are seeing scary evidence of the continuing necessity of childhood vaccinations, even against diseases that seem lost to the past. As of Tuesday, Sedgwick County has had 11 confirmed cases of measles among 580 nationwide in 20 states this year -- of a disease the U.S. thought it had licked 14 years ago.

Before measles vaccinations began in 1963, the disease sickened as many as 4 million Americans a year, killing 400 to 500 people and sometimes leaving survivors with permanent deafness or brain damage. Highly contagious, measles is spread by breathing, coughing or sneezing. Symptoms include fever, rash, cough, runny nose, conjunctivitis, aches and tiny white spots in the mouth. But by 2000, measles was declared to have been eliminated from the United States.

So it's been startling to see the multiple announcements from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment this month of 11 cases in Sedgwick County, in addition to three cases in Johnson County.

KDHE has warned of possible exposure at two Wichita restaurants and an informal softball tournament. One local case was of a child too young to be vaccinated. But another was an unvaccinated student taking summer classes at Wichita State University, underscoring the importance for all college as well as K-12 students to ensure they are vaccinated before the fall semester starts next month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend two doses of measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine for babies beginning at 12 months, also urging that all U.S. residents older than 6 months receive the MMR vaccine, if needed, before traveling abroad. That's because measles still kills 122,000 worldwide annually.

The Sedgwick County Health Department, which provided 63 vaccinations at a free MMR clinic last weekend, will hold its annual back-to-school immunization clinic from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at 2716 W. Central. Vaccines will be free to uninsured children, and the clinic accepts most insurance.

Health experts have connected measles' U.S. comeback to a 1998 report in the Lancet, retracted in 2010, that linked immunizations to autism, and to subsequent fearmongering about vaccine safety.

One new related rumor is being shamelessly pushed by immigration foes -- that the children flocking to the U.S. from Latin America are bringing diseases with them. But federal officials said the children are being evaluated and immunized as needed, and that some of their home countries have higher vaccination rates than the U.S.

According to Kansas Kids Count data, just 66 percent of Sedgwick County kindergartners in 2012 had received the recommended vaccination series by age 2, compared with 72 percent statewide.

If both percentages show significant room for improvement overall, the measles outbreak underscores the urgency. As KDHE Secretary Robert Moser said: "The best way to keep from getting the disease is by being vaccinated."

Guest editorial

The Wichita Eagle