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Will Cook County be home to the next big measles outbreak? Researchers think so.

Friday, May 10, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas

Will Cook County be home to the next big measles outbreak? Researchers think so.

Researchers who in 2015 correctly predicted where the Zika outbreak would strike in the U.S. say they think the country’s next big measles outbreak is most likely to happen in Cook County.

A research project spearheaded by Sahotra Sarkar, a University of Chicago-educated professor at the University of Texas at Austin, revealed the 25 counties most at-risk for a widespread measles outbreak, like those seen in Washington, Oregon and New York. Sarkar and his former student, Lauren Gardner of Johns Hopkins University, determined Cook County was the most at-risk for an outbreak. That’s based largely on the number of airplane flights to Chicago from global destinations where parents increasingly don’t have their children vaccinated, he said.

“Cook County turns out to be as important as it is, mainly because of the presence of O’Hare Airport,” Sarkar said.

Here’s the full list of counties where the next big measles outbreak is most likely to happen. »

The study was published Thursday in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The research took about six months to complete, using risk assessment models similar to one Sarkar and Gardner used when they determined Zika, a mosquito-carried virus that can cause serious birth defects, would first affect Texas and Florida when it emerged as a global threat to pregnant women.

Rachel Rubin, a senior medical officer with the Cook County Health Department, wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings. The seven measles cases reported in Illinois this year likely stemmed from one person who was infected overseas and traveled back to Illinois, she said.

“As we know O’Hare is a huge transfer point for travel within the United States, not to mention all of the international flights,” she said. “I’m not surprised that their modeling would’ve predicted that Cook County and the city of Chicago would be such a hot spot.”

Rounding out the top 10 counties identified in the study as most at-risk for a measles outbreak are: Los Angeles; Miami-Dade; Queens, N.Y.; King, Wash.; Maricopa, Ariz.; Broward, Fla.; Clark, Nev.; Harris, Texas; and Honolulu.

Since the 2015 work on Zika, Sarkar learned that a widely discredited former physician who claimed the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella can cause autism has relocated to Austin and gained a following. Sarkar did the measles study to warn people what could happen if they choose “conspiracy theories” over science.

“It occurred to me that perhaps besides the vaccine resistance from people who bought into this false notion that the MMR vaccine has a link to autism … the other crucial factor would be the volume of travel from countries outside the U.S. where there have been epidemics,” including in European countries and the Philippines, Sarkar said.

Sarkar points to what happened in Brooklyn in October, after unvaccinated children visited Israel during a monthslong measles outbreak. They returned to their community, made up mainly of ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom have chosen not to vaccinate their children with MMR because they believe the vaccine is not kosher. What followed was one of the nation’s largest outbreaks, prompting New York’s Rockland County to declare a state of emergency, banning unvaccinated children from visiting public places.

 



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