The first measles case South Carolina has seen in more than 20 years has been confirmed by the state health department.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reported a Georgetown County resident tested positive for the highly contagious virus this month.
The agency would not provide any other information about the patient, nor would it specify if the individual had been vaccinated.
The last time a measles case was reported in South Carolina was in 1997, in Charleston County.
The Georgetown County case was made public only days before the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was investigating a measles outbreak across 21 states. All told, 107 people were diagnosed in the United States between Jan. 1 and July 14.
The number of measles cases in 2018 will almost certainly outpace the number recorded last year, when 118 patients were diagnosed.
Mostly, patients who have been diagnosed were not vaccinated, the CDC reported.
Measles is often brought into the U.S. from countries where vaccination rates are lower. The virus is easily spread. Health officials believe children and adults who have not been vaccinated and come into contact with the measles virus face a 99 percent chance of contracting it.
South Carolina was not listed among the states impacted by the national outbreak, but federal data lags behind numbers reported by individual states, said Dr. Linda Bell, DHEC's statewide epidemiologist. The number of cases across the country will likely continue to climb.
The measles virus causes serious complications, including brain infections, measles-related pneumonia and occasionally death. The good news, Bell said, is that the vaccine — commonly called MMR for "measles, mumps and rubella" — is effective and safe.
Children are recommended to have two doses of the MMR vaccine, first at 12 months and again between the ages of 4 and 6. Bell said 95 percent of people who receive the first dose and 99 percent of those who receive both doses are protected against measles for life.
Most children in South Carolina are required to receive these vaccines before they enroll in a public school.
Historically, vaccine rates in this state have been high because the health department does not allow parents to claim "personal" exemptions to bypass the school requirements.
But religious exemptions, which don't require parents to answer questions about their belief system, have more than tripled since the 2010-2011 school year.
In Spartanburg County, for example, 1,389 children qualified for a religious exemption during the 2017-2018 school year, up from only 352 students during the 2010-2011 school year. In Charleston County, the numbers increased from 260 students to 722.
Statewide, the numbers jumped from 2,996 children in 2010-2011 to 9,427 last school year.
The trend troubles Bell.
"There is no specific drug to treat the measles virus," she said. "Measles can cause brain infections, measles-pneumonia. There are still a number of people who die from the measles. If you weigh the safety of the vaccine against that risk, all of that should be taken into consideration."
DHEC continues to investigate the case in Georgetown, she said, including the number of people the patients may have come into contact with. There is no evidence that the virus continues to spread in this state.
August is National Immunization Awareness Month.