Peninsula health officials on lookout for measles after recent outbreaks elsewhere in state

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Since a total of 13 measles cases were detected last month in San Juan, Whatcom and Kitsap counties, North Olympic Peninsula health officials are on the lookout for more cases closer to home.

Dr. Tom Locke, public health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, said it is possible that another wave of the highly contagious viral illness will spill onto the Peninsula.

“It's sort of a serious situation going on in the state, likely to get worse before it gets better,” Locke told the Clallam County Board of Health on Tuesday.

The good news is most people have already been vaccinated for measles or were exposed to it before 1957 and are now immune.

Measles is associated with a cough, sore throat, conjunctivitis and fever within 12 days of exposure, progressing to a generalized rash that usually begins on the face.

Up to 30 percent of measles cases lead to significant complications, including pneumonia and swelling of the brain.

“The other reason this is serious is that measles is the most contagious disease we know of,” Locke said.

Six Whatcom County measles cases are linked to a larger outbreak, going on now, of more than 375 in southern British Columbia.

A separate six-case outbreak occurred in San Juan County late last month after a young man who had not been immunized returned from the Philippines and visited several restaurants and public events before he developed the measles rash.

A Kitsap County man came down with measles after eating at a Friday Harbor restaurant where the contagious San Juan County individual had been. The Kitsap County man traveled on Washington state ferries.

Measles is so contagious, Locke said, that you can catch it through airborne transmission two hours after an exposed person leaves a room.

In a Wednesday interview, Locke said it is a “definite possibility” that the recent outbreaks will spread to the Peninsula.

“I don't know if it's a probability, though,” he added.

“If we start seeing [new] measles cases this week, that means a lot of people got exposed. Clallam and Jefferson counties could be a risk for what you would call a third wave.”

Case rates have been rising nationally because of lower vaccination rates and importation since measles was declared to be eliminated from the U.S. in 2000.

There were large measles outbreaks last year in unvaccinated communities in New York and Southern California.

“Washington state has one of the worst measles vaccination rates,” Locke told the health board.

“As a general rule, if the immunity to measles in the population drops to below 95 percent, you're at risk for outbreaks. And we're well below that number.

“So this has been a problem we've been concerned about for many years, and now it's starting to happen.”

Parents are urged to get their children vaccinated if they haven't had a shot. The highly effective vaccine is available at health care clinics, the Clallam and Jefferson County health departments, and certain pharmacies.

Students and health care workers who have been exposed to measles and can't provide proof of immunity can be quarantined for three weeks.

“From a workload standpoint, even a single measles case in a community is a huge workload issue for the public health department, for the health care system,” Locke said.

“You end up having to do all these case investigations to try to determine whether people are immune or not, find vaccination records, do blood tests to see if you can detect immunity that way and vaccinate a lot of people.

“So it takes what amounts to a kind of an emergency response of the health department, even with a single case.”

A British Columbia-style outbreak would be “way beyond” what the state lab capacity could handle, Locke added.

“Our goal is to not let this get as bad as British Columbia,” Locke said.

Fears about the measles vaccine being linked to autism have been discredited as “fraudulent research” by someone who was trying to sell a different kind of vaccine, Locke said.

Information about measles is available on the state Department of Health website at www.doh.wa.gov.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rob.ollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: April 17. 2014 6:58AM
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