Health officials track measles exposure at four U.S. airports

BOSTON Mon Feb 28, 2011 5:39pm EST

BOSTON (Reuters) - Health officials said on Monday they have launched a cross-country measles watch for anyone who might have been exposed to a contagious airline passenger who traveled through four major U.S. airports.

The 27-year-old New Mexico woman, who was not immunized against measles, arrived from Europe and was in airports in Virginia, Maryland, Colorado and New Mexico from February 20 to February 22, officials said.

No other suspected cases have emerged but it is still early, given the 10- to 14-day incubation time after exposure to the highly contagious virus, said health officials in all four states.

The airborne virus spreads person-to-person and can linger up to two hours in the air after a cough or sneeze. It resembles a cold initially, but later a rash develops on the face and then the rest of the body.

People with measles are contagious four days before and four days after the tell-tale rash appears.

With assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state authorities are contacting passengers who may have been exposed to the measles case to confirm whether they have been immunized, said CDC spokesman Jeff Dimond.

They are contacting hundreds of passengers - those seated in the five rows closest to the confirmed case on one flight and nearly all travelers on the Southwest flights which do not assign seating, he said.

"We're going to be monitoring very closely over the next several weeks for any additional cases and then if we identify any possible cases we'll get confirmatory testing very quickly," said Dr. Maggi Gallaher, medical director for the public health division at the New Mexico Department of Health.

Other states said they will take similar measures.

The woman arrived from a European airport at Washington Dulles International Airport on February 20, then traveled on February 22 on two Southwest Airlines flights from BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport to Denver International Airport and on to Albuquerque International Sunport, authorities said.

The containment efforts come as health officials in Boston track three people suspected of crossing paths with a 24-year-old-woman whose measles diagnosis was confirmed earlier this month.

In both the Boston and the New Mexico cases, health officials believe measles was contracted overseas.

Measles is a leading cause of death among children in the developing world, but it is seldom seen in the United States where vaccination is required for all school children.

The most recent large outbreak of measles in the United States was in 2008, when more than 130 cases were reported in 15 states, according to the CDC.

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