Health officials in Japan are combating the country’s worst measles outbreak in years, with many infections clustered among attendees of a Valentine’s Day gift fair and a religious group that avoids vaccinations.
A total of 167 cases were reported in 20 of Japan’s 47 prefectures as of Feb. 10, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases said, with the largest outbreaks in the prefectures of Mie and Osaka.
It is the fastest Japan has reached that many cases at the beginning of the year since 2008.
The flare-up of the highly contagious disease comes as the United States is grappling with measles outbreaks in Texas, New York and Washington, with more than 120 cases reported so far this year. Those outbreaks have prompted a rush to vaccinate children in some places where parents have broader choice over such decisions.
In Japan, almost all of the 49 reported cases in Mie Prefecture were people connected to Miroku Community Kyusei Shinkyo, a religious group that promotes alternative healing.
The group said it emphasized avoiding medicines and vaccines and eating naturally farmed foods. But after some members became infected, the group apologized and said it was changing its practices.
“Given the unexpected situation, we will follow the health care center’s advice to get vaccine shots for measles or other highly infectious diseases so that we don’t cause concern to others,” the group said in a statement posted on their website.
Some of the patients in the Mie Prefecture outbreak were not adequately vaccinated, said Masaya Yamato, a doctor at Rinku General Medical Center in Osaka.
“Many of the patients were young and they did not receive enough shots, maybe due to their parents’ philosophy, and the outbreak spread at their meeting,” Dr. Yamato said.
Another large cluster of measles infections is centered on a complex in Osaka that includes Japan’s tallest building, Abeno Harukas, where 21 customers and workers at a Valentine’s Day fair contracted the virus.
A handful of cases were linked to children who returned to Japan from the Philippines. The Philippines reported a steadily growing number of measles cases and deaths this year, with the virus spreading beyond Manila, the capital, to other parts of Luzon, the country’s most populous island. In the first six weeks of 2019, more than 9,000 cases were reported, including 146 deaths, the Philippine Department of Health said.
Measles is caused by a virus, and symptoms include rashes, fevers and ear infections that in some cases can lead to permanent hearing loss. Children are particularly susceptible to the disease, with some infections leading to complications such as pneumonia or encephalitis, a swelling of the brain. The disease kills one or two children out of every 1,000 who get it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While Japan is one of the world’s richest countries, with a strong health system, researchers have noted that among developed countries it has high levels of infections of diseases that could be prevented by vaccines. A vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella was discontinued in the early 1990s after it was linked to aseptic meningitis. Since then, the government has had a wary attitude toward promoting vaccines.
That has changed somewhat in recent years though, and in 2006, Japanese health officials began recommending a second measles vaccination shot for children to increase immunization rates.