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Measles' next target in LA: Unvaccinated college students

Soumya Karlamangla, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles health officials warned this week that students and staff at the University of California, Los Angeles and Cal State L.A. may be at risk of catching measles, an announcement that has raised questions about universities' susceptibility to disease outbreaks.

Not only can cramped dorm rooms and crowded classrooms be breeding grounds for contagion, but young adults in California are less likely to be vaccinated than other age groups, experts say. One of the people infected in L.A.'s measles outbreak is a UCLA student, university officials confirmed Tuesday.

People who are now in their early 20s are part of what's known as the "Wakefield generation," because they were infants in 1998 when British scientist Andrew Wakefield published a now discredited paper claiming that vaccines cause autism. Scared of the side effects of vaccination, many parents chose to opt out.

California implemented one of country's strictest immunization laws in 2016 to try to push up vaccination rates, but high school students and young adults who had already finished their schooling when the law took effect were not required to comply. That has left a large pool of young people especially vulnerable to infections, experts say.

"Our eyes are always focused on these elementary schools ... but (vaccine refusal) been going on for a while now, so you have undervaccinated kids becoming undervaccinated adults," said UC Riverside professor Richard M. Carpiano, a medical sociologist who studies vaccine hesitancy. "This is a higher education issue."

Nationwide, health officials are grappling with a surge in measles cases that is approaching a 20-year high. California is one of 22 states where measles cases have been reported in 2019, according to federal officials.

 

L.A. County officials announced Monday that they are investigating an outbreak involving four people as well as one standalone case. There have been at least 25 measles cases in California this year, most linked to a cluster in the northern part of the state.

The UCLA student who was recently infected attended classes for three days in early April while infectious, according to a statement from UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez. Though there is currently no risk of catching measles on campus, officials say that people who came near the student may have contracted measles.

Measles spreads through coughing and sneezing, and up to 95 percent of unvaccinated people who are exposed to measles will develop the illness, said Dr. Vikram Anand, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Even after a sick person leaves a room, the virus can linger in the air for up to two hours, waiting to infect an unsuspecting victim.

"Measles is probably the most contagious disease on the planet," Anand said.

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