(Bloomberg) — Measles surged to 288 cases this year, the highest number on record since the government declared it had eliminated outbreaks of the highly contagious virus in 2000 and the worst year since 1994.

This year’s contagion is spread among 18 states and New York City, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sixty-nine percent of patients weren’t vaccinated for the illness that causes head-to-toe rash, muscle pain, fever and bloodshot eyes. The illnesses are the most since 963 cases were reported in 1994, prompted by an outbreak in Colorado, the agency said.

“Measles may be forgotten, but it isn’t gone,” said Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s national center for immunization and respiratory diseases. “Measles anywhere in the world can reach our communities and unvaccinated Americans are at risk.”

Ninety-seven percent of this year’s cases were associated with importations from at least 18 countries, the CDC said. About 20 million cases of measles occur globally each year and the increase in the U.S. and around the world should keep health-care providers alert for infections, the Atlanta-based agency said in its report.

“Is it surprising? It’s at least disappointing,” said Leonard Krilov, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, New York. “The issue is that measles is so highly contagious.”

Overseas outbreak

Krilov echoed the CDC’s recommendation that vaccinations should be made a priority. While the infection has been under control in the U.S., it’s prevalent worldwide and easy to bring back to the nation. Krilov said he saw one case imported from London last year to Brooklyn that spread to about 60 patients in adjacent communities within 2 months, prompting the health department to take action.

“It takes one person to bring it back, but to bring it into an unimmunized population it’s going to take off,” he said.

Forty-five cases this year were directly brought in from people traveling abroad, with almost half of these cases returning from the Philippines, where there has been a large outbreak since October, the CDC said. This finding underscores the importance of vaccinations for U.S. citizens before traveling to other regions of the world, the agency said.

Most U.S. cases were reported in Ohio, with 138, followed by 60 in California and 26 in New York City.

This year’s outbreak eclipses the 220 cases reported 2011, the previous high since the 2000 declaration that endemic transmission of measles was eliminated in the United States.

“We’re really diverging from the usual annual trend of cases,” Schuchat said.


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