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A new threat appears along the U.S.-Mexico border: Americans with measles

February 25, 2015


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As Republican lawmakers suggest that undocumented immigrants crossing the southern border may be responsible for bringing measles and other diseases into the country, Mexican health authorities are warning people traveling to the United States about the risk of infection here following an outbreak of measles at Disneyland last month that has sickened dozens of people in several states.

It’s a remarkable reversal that demonstrates how far public health in Latin America has advanced in the past few decades — especially in contrast to measles’s alarming return in the United States.

Health officials in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, which borders Texas and New Mexico, are distributing pamphlets with information about measles at airports, bus stations and border crossings. They’re urging anyone with plans to travel to U.S. states where the outbreak has spread to immunize themselves, if they haven’t already.

These actions follow the arrival of two people with measles in Mexico from the United States last month, one of them an infant nearing her second birthday. Measles poses grave risks to small children, including permanent deafness, brain damage and death.

“The U.S. exported [the] measles virus to Mexico,” Anne Schuchat, an official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said.

She told U.S. lawmakers at a hearing this month that in years past, travelers and immigrants from Mexico and Latin America brought measles and other diseases into the United States. Yet immunization rates in Latin American countries have improved, and the rate in Mexico has been higher than the U.S. rate for most of the past 20 years, according to the World Health Organization.

Now, although vaccination rates in the United States remain above 90 percent, sentiment has turned against vaccines in a few communities.


The country had 644 cases last year, by far the most in at least decades, and the recent outbreak, which has already infected at least 123 people and likely more, has spread south to Mexico.

“We see the virus unfortunately going the other direction,” Schuchat said later.

Measles’s new reality is at odds with the warnings given by some G.O.P. lawmakers, such as Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), who recently suggested that the southern border was a risk to public health in the United States. “I don’t think there is any health care professional who has examined the facts who can honestly say that Americans have not died because the diseases brought into America by illegal aliens who are not properly health care screened as lawful immigrants are,” he said.

Schuchat told lawmakers that most measles strains are now brought into the United States by unvaccinated Americans traveling abroad, who probably enter the country without being screened in any way when they return home. Meanwhile, Americans who are worried about any public health risk from illegal immigration can still protect themselves through vaccinations for most diseases.

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