TIP Talk!

Monday February 11, 2019

Why the Washington measles outbreak is so frightening


Amber Gorrow takes the right steps to protect her children against illness, including making sure they’re vaccinated. In that case, why is she so afraid of the measles outbreak that’s been spreading in her suburban county outside Portland, Ore.?

As reported by the Washington Post, Gorrow is worried about even leaving the house and concerned every time her 3-year-old, vaccinated daughter comes home from preschool. That’s because Gorrow also has a 9-week-old baby boy who must wait about 10 months to get his first vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella. Until then, he is unprotected against the outbreak caused by low vaccination rates in her county.

If she takes her infant son to the park or the library, or even to pick up diapers at the market, she could be exposing him to the measles virus, which can last for two hours in the air and on surfaces.  She canceled a trip to a children’s museum. The first thing that happens when her 3-year-old daughter gets home is that her hands get washed – but what if she’s holding something that was touched by an infected child and now is in the house?

More than 50 people have caught this highly contagious, dangerous disease in recent weeks in Washington state and around Portland. Unlike some other measles outbreaks, such as the one in Minnesota that affected primarily the Somali population, or in New York, where there have been close to 200 cases in enclaves of ultra-Orthodox Jews, the problem in the northwestern United States isn’t confined to one particular group that eschews vaccination.

Instead, perilously low vaccination rates plague the area. In Clark County, close to a quarter of school children are not fully vaccinated against measles, yet the disease is so contagious that 90 to 95 percent of the population must be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, the level at which a single case of measles cannot threaten an entire community. Conditions are ripe in the county for swift spread of the disease, doctors warn.

Time magazine reports a surge in people seeking the MMR vaccine in recent weeks in the affected area:

In Clark County, Washington – where about 50 people have been infected since the outbreak started – more than 6 times as many people were vaccinated for measles from January 13 to February 2 compared to the same period last year, according to a spokesperson for Washington State Department of Health.

That’s a move in the right direction, and with luck, many of those people will be protected. It takes 10 days to two weeks for the vaccine to take effect, so those who were just vaccinated are still at risk – along with the babies under age 1, children who have serious medical conditions that preclude their being vaccinated, and the small percentage who are vaccinated but don’t gain immunity from the vaccine.

A measles outbreak in Texas is smaller so far, with about 10 people falling ill. Overall, vaccination rates in Texas are within the herd-immunity guidelines, but that’s not true of all areas of the state. Pockets of low vaccination rates can lead to the same consequences here.

Studies have shown, over and over again, that the MMR vaccine is not only highly effective, protecting 97 percent of those vaccinated, but also safe. It does not cause autism. Measles itself, however, is anything but low-risk. Before the vaccine was routinely administered, 400 to 500 Americans died each year from the disease. Ten times that many were hospitalized – and that was at a time when the nation’s population was much smaller than it is now. Thousands of children each year developed measles encephalitis, which can cause deafness and other permanent damage.

Of course, to parents who have concerns about vaccines, it feels safer not to have their children vaccinated because measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases seem so unlikely to happen, like a lightning strike. And that used to be true, when almost all children were vaccinated. Now it is less true, and parents never know when or where it will strike. Just ask Amber Gorrow.


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