Most baby boomers remember the measles.
Those itchy spots appearing everywhere, even inside the mouth. Runny nose. Watery red eyes. Fever as high as 104 degrees.
There was no escape from measles, one of the most contagious viruses out there. Spread by coughing and sneezing, the virus can remain airborne or on surfaces for up to two hours. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of unvaccinated people who are exposed will come down with the measles. And everybody was unvaccinated back then. Most children got measles and endured several days of misery. While the majority emerged unscathed, occasionally serious complications arose, such as pneumonia, deafness, brain infections and even death.
When a vaccine emerged in the 1960s, getting measles was no longer a given. It resurged again in the 1980s, but by the year 2000, measles was considered eliminated in the U.S. because there hadn’t been a case for 12 months straight.
Now measles is back.
Three outbreaks in New York and New Jersey last year brought many of the country’s almost 350 cases. The disease ebbed and flowed over the last decade.
Recently, 35 cases popped up in Washington’s Clark County, which includes Vancouver, across the Columbia River from Portland. At least 31 of the victims had not been vaccinated. So far, Oregon has had only one case linked to the outbreak, but health officials are on edge. Places where people might have been exposed include various stores, the Portland International Airport , Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Moda Center.
Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara said measles linger in the air and on surfaces.
“Measles is about as contagious as it gets,” Fiumara said. “It’s spread via droplet transmission and it’s one of the few that can survive in one area for a couple of hours. It hangs around a lot longer than others do.”
According to research, communities can protect themselves with herd immunity. If most of us get vaccinated, the rest — such as babies too young to be vaccinated, people undergoing cancer therapy or those with immune system deficiencies — will be protected.
Fiumara said at least 90 to 95 percent of children should receive the two doses of the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine to provide a proper level of immunity.
Fiumara said herd immunity is holding strong in Umatilla County.
“In Umatilla County, we’re not overly worried about the outbreak going on right now,” he said.
He made a few clicks with his mouse and pulled up an interactive map created by the Oregon Health Authority. For each Oregon county (and school within each county), it showed vaccination rates for students K-12 during the 2017-18 school year. Rates varied, depending on the school. The Blue Mountain Mennonite School, in Milton-Freewater, had the lowest MMR vaccination rate of 76 percent. Umatilla County as a whole, however, had a rate of 98 percent. Morrow County’s rate was 99 percent.
“For us, we just need to be aware and make sure we’re up on our vaccinations, especially if traveling,” he said. “If you’re going through an airport, you don’t know who was there before you. They don’t have to be in front of you to share.”
In Washingon, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency last Friday. Two confirmed cases of measles connected to the Washington outbreak ended up in Hawaii. The family remained quarantined for their entire stay on the Big Island.
For Oregon parents whose children are unvaccinated, exclusion day is coming. On Feb. 20, students whose shot records are not up to date won’t be allowed to attend school. Last year in Umatilla County, about 500 warning letters went out and 100 students were turned away on Exclusion Day. This year’s letters will go out next week.
Parents may choose to apply for non-medical exemptions if they wish. Those parents, Fiumara said, will be required to receive education about each vaccination from which they want their child to be exempted. Many are doing just this. The CDC reported that the number of children not receiving vaccines has quadrupled since 2001.
Anti-vaxxers have focused on a 1998 study linking the MMR vaccine and autism. The study was later retracted but its influence remains. Fiumara encouraged parents to choose vaccination.
“Studies have shown time and time again that vaccinations have saved countless lives,” he said.
The Umatilla County Health Department will offer several immunization clinics for children needing vaccinations. On Feb. 14 and 15, a walk-in clinic is scheduled from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Hermiston, 435 E. Newport St. On Feb. 19, the Pendleton clinic, 200 S.E. Third St., will give shots from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
On Exclusion Day, Feb. 20, both clinics will offer vaccinations during normal hours. Bring insurance information and immunization cards, if available.
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.