A nationwide spike in measles cases this year, including three in New Jersey, is being blamed on a rise in unvaccinated young people, but South Jersey officials said the infection rate locally has been low to nonexistent during the past 10 years.

Measles, a highly contagious, often fatal viral illness that causes fever, runny nose, cough and a bodywide rash, was officially considered "eliminated" in 2000 in the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there have been sporadic cases in the years since, usually about 60 per year.

The CDC said a disease is "eliminated" when there is an "interruption of continuous transmission" lasting 12 months or more.

But there were 159 reported cases in 2013 as of Aug. 24, the CDC reported, a statistic that threatens the post-elimination record of 220 cases in 2011.

At least 131 of those cases were in unvaccinated people, the CDC reports, with another 15 in individuals whose vaccination status is unclear. Brooklyn, N.Y., accounted for 58 of the reported cases - the worst single outbreak since 2000.

Locally, officials in Atlantic and Cape May counties said that there have been no recent recorded cases of measles in their counties, thanks mostly to a high compliance rate for children's MMS (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccination programs.

Children are given the shots in two steps, at age 1 and just before they enter school, Cape May County Public Health Officer Kevin Thomas said. That results in a 98 percent immunity rate.

The county does not have any of the insular religious groups opposed to vaccination that have led to outbreaks such as the one in Brooklyn, which was mostly contained to one small Orthodox Jewish community, Thomas said.

But beyond religious or medical exemptions, anti-vaccine movements have arisen among parents who oppose childhood shots due to concerns about a possible connection to autism. There are several studies that show there is no such connection, however, and one well-publicized British study that did claim to show a connection was later debunked and its author, Andrew Wakefield, stripped of his medical license.

Atlantic County Health Officer Pat Diamond said that "on occasion, you do see some reluctance to receive the vaccine."

The county provides educational materials on the benefits of vaccination, Diamond said, including one that was just recently translated to Spanish.

"We have such a high compliance rate that we've developed a 'herd immunity' by virtue of many, many people who are vaccinated protecting people who are unvaccinated."

She added that people who travel "should take a look at what vaccines they need before they go to that country. Measles has been brought back to this country from people traveling to it who were not immunized."

While the disease is rare in the U.S., an estimated 20 million yearly cases of measles occur worldwide, the CDC reports.

Measles, along with mumps and rubella, is "immediately reportable" to the state Department of Health, AtlantiCare spokeswoman Betsy Woerner said. The department then investigates where and how a person contracted the disease, who they have been in contact with and how to contain its spread.

According to Woerner, during the past 10 years one patient was admitted to AtlantiCare for measles, in 2006, while four patients came to AtlantiCare with measles and were treated and released. Of those, three had measles at the time they visited the hospital, while one had post-measles encephalitis, a complication from measles.

Diamond added that there was one reported case of mumps in 2010. That disease is currently seeing a suspected outbreak in Monmouth County, where 41 possible cases were reportedly being investigated by the state.

Thomas said that there have been no reported cases of measles in Cape May County since he became director in 2006, and there are "periodically" one to two cases of mumps.

Diamond said that Atlantic County offers vaccinations to the uninsured or to those whose insurance doesn't cover MMR vaccinations.

"We encourage parents who don't have access to vaccines to visit our clinics," Diamond said.

In addition, the CDC recommends two doses of MMR vaccine for health-care personnel and students attending college or post-high school institutions, and other adults without evidence of measles immunity should receive one dose.

Contact Steven Lemongello:

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@SteveLemongello on Twitter

Health clinics and vaccinations

Atlantic County Child Health Clinics

Health screenings and immunizations for children 18 years and younger

For an appointment, call 609-645-7700, ext. 4500

Adult Vaccine Clinic

Low or no cost immunizations available to those 18 years and older

For an appointment, call 609-645-5933

Cape May County Health Clinics

Adolescent and adult vaccinations

For an appointment, call 609-465-1200

Cumberland County Department of Health

For an appointment and times, call 856-327-7602, ext. 7114.