An estimated 20,000 people attended a large religious gathering in Kentucky on the same days as a resident infected with measles last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday, with potential contacts who may have been exposed to the highly transmissible virus now spanning multiple states and countries.
The CDC is urging doctors to “be on high alert for measles symptoms” among people who attended the rally and is actively working with Kentucky officials to search for other cases.
“Community transmission of measles related to this event is possible, particularly in unvaccinated or under-vaccinated individuals,” CDC spokesman Scott Pauley said in a statement.
Pauley said the agency urges unvaccinated people who may have been exposed at the University of Asbury rally to contact a doctor and get vaccinated.
Vaccines or immunoglobulins may be given after exposure to unvaccinated or under-vaccinated people to ward off the virus.
The CDC appeal follows a week-long religious “revival” rally hosted by Asbury University in Kentucky. Thousands of people had flocked to Asbury University in the town of Wilmore, Kentucky, far exceeding the town’s population of some 6,000.
CBS affiliate WKYT reported that the spontaneous gathering began Feb. 8, after some students decided to stay in the Christian liberal arts college chapel following the end of a scheduled service. It eventually drew 50,000 to 70,000 people, the station reported, as news of the event spread on social media.
The university says in the past it has hosted several “great revivals,” which are usually marked by a series of back-to-back church services held over several days.
The university said it has no plans to host or sponsor additional “effusion” services at this time.
State officials first confirmed they launched an investigation into the Asbury measles case last month in an unvaccinated resident of Jessamine County, which encompasses Asbury University.
The case marks the third diagnosed in Kentucky in as many months, including another linked to a recent large outbreak in Ohio. Nationally, the CDC says a total of three measles cases have been reported in two jurisdictions this year.
Asbury University said the person attended their church services before developing symptoms of measles. However, the CDC said the person was contagious while on campus Feb. 17-18.
Measles symptoms – which include cough, fever and a rash – usually develop about two weeks after a person is exposed. People can be contagious for up to four days before their rash appears.
The virus is considered one of the most transmissible diseases, with up to 9 in 10 susceptible contacts of contagious cases catching the virus. For immunized people exposed to the virus, the vaccine is estimated to be about 97% effective.
Students at Asbury University must have received the two-dose vaccine MMR vaccinereported CBS affiliate WKYT.
Before vaccines were rolled out in the 1960s, an average of about 500 deaths and 48,000 hospitalizations have been caused by the virus each year. Serious complications include brain swelling and pneumonia.
The Jessamine County Health Department said Friday it plans to set up a measles vaccination clinic in response to the potential outbreak.
“Recent data released by the CDC indicates that MMR vaccine coverage among Kentucky kindergartners is among the lowest in the nation,” the Kentucky Department of Public Health said in a statement.