1.28.2019 6:10 PM

Science

Measles Outbreak: Clark County Number Rises in "Preventable" Emergency

The measles outbreak in a county just north of Portland worsened over the weekend, as the number of confirmed cases increased into the 30s.

On Sunday, Clark County Public Health confirmed 34 cases of measles, and added that nine more may be confirmed soon. While most of the cases are local to Clark County, Washington, one case was confirmed in Seattle, 200 miles to the north. Another has been identified in Portland.

Governor Jay Inslee proclaimed a state of emergency on Friday, saying “proactive steps to provide the vaccination and other measures must be taken quickly.”

"The caseload “creates an extreme public health risk that may quickly spread to other counties."

Peter J. Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told the Washington Post last week that Clark County is a “hotspot” for outbreaks because of the large number of nonmedical exemptions for vaccines.

“This is something I’ve predicted for a while now,” he told the Post about the outbreak in Clark County. “It’s really awful and really tragic and totally preventable.”

Given the contagious nature of the measles virus, a single case hundreds of miles north was enough to raise alarm among Washington’s public health authorities. The caseload “creates an extreme public health risk that may quickly spread to other counties,” Inslee writes in his remarks on the state of emergency.

There's a safe and effective measles vaccines that can protect against the disease. Flickr / Pan American Health Organization PAHO

Washington is mobilizing resources to combat this measles outbreak, and the state Department of Health has “instituted an infectious disease incident management structure, which includes lab testing for measles, investigations and “other efforts to protect communities.” Inslee’s website also notes that the Washington State Military Department and State Emergency Operations Center are coordinating with the department of health.

"A state of emergency exists in all counties in Washington.

Measles’ ability to spread rapidly is one of the distinguishing factors of the virus, which killed nearly 110,000 children around the world in 2017. That’s why the measles vaccine is so important. Once someone has the measles, it can be hard to control the spread, but preventing people from getting measles in the first place is a solid way to control the disease.

The vaccine is so effective, that in 2000, measles was officially eradicated from the United States (though that doesn’t mean that cases don’t occasionally still pop up.) In 2016, the Pan American Health Organization actually declared measles eradicated in the Americas, but there are still outbreaks among individuals who don’t receive the vaccine.

Measles was declared eradicated in the US in 2000, but there are still cases that pop up. CDC

The measles outbreak in Washington state is a case study in what happens when people turn their back on the measles vaccine. Most of the measles cases in Washington have been in children who don’t have that important vaccination.

Of the 34 cases confirmed, 30 of them are in un-immunized individuals, and the remaining four have an unverified immunization status. Twenty-four of those cases represent children under the age of ten, and nine cases are in individuals between 11 and 18.

As Inverse reported, some public health experts had actually predicted that the Portland area would be at risk for an outbreak of this nature because of the number of children who are allowed to forgo vaccines due to “non-medical exemptions”.

“The high numbers of [non-medical exemptions] in these densely populated urban centers suggest that outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases could either originate from or spread rapidly throughout these populations of unimmunized, unprotected children,” write researchers in a paper published in the journal PLOS Medicine in June. “The fact that the largest count of vaccine-exempt pediatric populations originate in large cities with busy international airports may further contribute to this risk.”

But as effective as the vaccine is at preventing measles, it can’t stop the spread of the disease once it gains a foothold, like the one it currently has in Washington State.

In response to the dangerous rise of anti-vaccination theories, Washington state health officials have had to get serious. They’re pulling out all the stops to control a disease that really shouldn’t exist in the first place.

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