Northwest measles outbreak didn’t have to happen

January 24, 2019 GMT

One of the advances of public health in the United States had been the near elimination of infectious diseases because of vaccinations.

Such progress, though, has halted in recent years because of fears about harmful side effects of vaccines. Now, thanks to a measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest, we can see in real time what happens when people stop vaccinating their children. Infectious diseases such as measles spread.

As a result, health officials in Clark County, Wash., near Portland, have declared a public health emergency. People infected with the contagious measles virus have visited schools, churches, a Costco, an Ikea and a dentist’s office. Someone with measles was even at the Portland International Airport; another person went to a Trail Blazers game, the Washington Post reported. Hundreds of people have been exposed.

Here’s how quickly the emergency escalated. At the start of last week, public health officials knew of only a handful of confirmed cases. By Friday when the emergency was declared, 19 cases had been confirmed. The last update on Tuesday showed some 23 confirmed cases and more being investigated. Most people who became ill had not been immunized.

Yet measles can be prevented. Vaccinations work. For that to happen, however, parents must choose to vaccinate their children. But in some parts of the country — and New Mexico has its own pockets of resistance — unfounded fears about links between vaccines and autism, for example, are reducing the rates of immunization.

In Clark County during the 2017-18 school year, some 7.9 percent of children were exempted from vaccinations required to enter kindergarten. That includes the two-dose course for measles that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is 97 percent effective. The MMR vaccine also protects against mumps and rubella.

With only 1.2 percent of the children receiving a medical excuse, nearly 7 percent of the children were not vaccinated for religious or personal reasons. This compares to only about 2 percent of children nationally who go without required immunizations for personal, rather than medical, reasons. For protection to work — that herd immunity to kick in, even for those without vaccines — some 92 percent to 94 percent of the population must be vaccinated. (In New Mexico, only medical and religious exemptions are allowed.)

Medical experts expect to see measles break out where vaccination refusals are higher than average. That’s what is happening around Clark County and Portland, with predictions that more people likely will contract the disease.

Yet children do not have to become ill because of measles. They can be vaccinated, their immunity then protecting others at risk for the disease, including pregnant women, those with compromised immune systems and the elderly. These outbreaks should be part of history, not our present.

After all, almost two decades ago, public health officials believed that measles had been eradicated in the United States. That’s because in 2000, more than a year had passed without a continuous transmission of the disease. A decrease in the vaccination rates, however, has meant the return of measles, likely brought in from different parts of the world.

Rather than accept these diseases as a risk of childhood, parents should protect their children with vaccinations. What is happening in the Pacific Northwest needs to stop. Vaccinations work.