Denver International Airport - DIA

Denver International Airport.

Three unvaccinated children currently hospitalized with measles at Children’s Hospital Colorado caught the infectious disease in New Zealand and may have exposed travelers last week who were passing through the international airports in Denver and Los Angeles, a federal official said.

After visiting New Zealand, the U.S. children — who are non-residents of Denver and Los Angeles — had a layover in Los Angeles International Airport on Dec. 11, before arriving to Denver International Airport a few hours later, according to Scott Pauley, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Both the Tri-County Health Department, which oversees Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties, and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health released advisories on Monday and announced their investigations of the cases. The health departments are working with other agencies, including the CDC, to notify people at risk.

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The five-day delay between the date the children passed through DIA and when the cases were publicly announced was due to time needed to gather and analyze information from all involved parties and confirm the diagnoses, said Bernadette Albanese, a disease control doctor at Tri-County Health.

There is no timeline for Colorado's investigation, Pauley said, but the state health department will release more information to the public when all passengers have been contacted and the investigation is complete.

Travelers in DIA who may have passed through Concourse A, used a train to baggage claim, were in west baggage claim or west level 4 passenger pick-up areas between 1:15 and 5:45 p.m. on Dec. 11, could be at risk, officials said. Individuals in the emergency department of the Children’s Hospital Colorado between 1 and 7 p.m. the following day also are vulnerable.

It has not been disclosed how long the three children will be hospitalized, but treatment for measles could last up to a week, said Jessica Cataldi, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. In special cases, treatment could extend even longer, especially when the disease leads to pneumonia or a brain infection.

Cataldi stressed the importance of receiving the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and encouraged anyone who might have symptoms of the highly contagious disease — including a fever, cough, runny nose, sore eyes and rash  to call their doctor or a hospital right away.

New Zealand is projected to hit a two-decade high of confirmed cases of measles, with at least 2,161 cases since the beginning of the year, according to its Ministry of Health. The agency advises that anyone traveling to the country should be “fully immunized” for measles at least two weeks before arriving.

Up to 90% of people who come in close contact to a person with measles can catch the infection if not immunized, according to the CDC.

The only case that has been previously reported in Colorado this year was back in January, The Denver Post reports.

Meanwhile, roughly 24,000 children across the state were exempted this fall from the measles vaccination for personal or religious reasons, according to Chalkbeat. A recent report found that kindergartners fully immunized against the infection fell to 87% compared with 89% the year before.

In some parts of Colorado, vaccination rates are "dangerously low," below 20%, according the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

In July, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order to boost vaccination rates for children and keep the state from heading in the "wrong direction" on immunizations, although he said he is "pro choice" for families to make their own health care decisions. 

Across the country, there has been a resurgence in measles, with more than 1,200 cases reported since the start of 2019 through September, according to the CDC. That number represents the most U.S. cases reported in a year in nearly three decades, and the second-highest number of reported outbreaks annually since the preventable disease was declared eliminated in 2000.

Nearly 90% of reported measles cases across the country involved patients who were unvaccinated.

"I think people have forgotten that measles is a serious illness and think that it doesn't happen," Albanese said. "This is why you get vaccinated — because it's here." 

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