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Iowa health officials prepare for the possibility of a measles outbreak

BY JENNY EARL | MARCH 27, 2012 6:30 AM

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University of Iowa health officials say the number of international students and students traveling abroad at the UI leaves the university at risk for infection.

"Given that students travel much more than in the past to countries where there is more disease and lower vaccination rates, [getting vaccinated] is an important active step to maintain personal health and to protect others on campus and in the community," said Lisa James, associate director for clinic operations at UI Student Health Services.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have warned that measles is still a major concern — killing around 200,000 people each year worldwide — particularly in Western Europe.

With the increase in the number of Americans traveling to Europe for the upcoming Summer Olympic Games, health officials are raising awareness for the possibility of a measles outbreak.

In 2010-11, 908 UI students studied abroad, and at present, more than 3,400 international students from 111 different countries attend the UI.

The rate of international students coming to the UI has multiplied by five since 2001 — international students make up 10.5 percent of UI enrollment. Of the current total international student body at the UI, 6.7 percent are from Europe. The spike has caused Student Health officials to push for updated student vaccinations.

Students enrolled at the UI are required to have two measles, mumps, and rubella vaccinations.

However, state health officials said this may not completely protect students.

"There's a 4 or 5 percent chance you could still get measles if [you] get exposed," said Patricia Quinlisk, state epidemiologist and medical director of the Iowa Public Health Department. "People don't realize measles is the most infectious disease that we deal with."

Declining immunization rates in Europe may have caused the increase in measles cases, said Linda Hruby, a nurse in the travel clinic at UI Student Health.

"We review the students' immunization records for required vaccinations and will offer vaccinations for diseases that are specific to the regions where they are traveling," she said.

Quinlisk said the Iowa Department of Public Health receives a call about once a week from health-care providers concerned they may have a patient who has measles.

The last reported case of a measles infection in Iowa occurred last summer. Although measles cases are rare, Quinlisk said, they can be dangerous because of the disease's ability to spread rapidly.

State health officials said measles is an emergency-reportable disease — if there's a chance someone has a case, they will take immediate action. The Iowa Department of Public Health will work with the CDC to contact anyone that may have been exposed.

This is not only a major health concern for the state, it's a financial burden as well, Quinlisk said.

"People always ask me what disease I'm most afraid of getting in Iowa — it's measles — and that's because measles spreads so easily," she said. "This is a huge issue. We do not want measles to get a foothold in the United States again."


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