A measles outbreak has become an official state emergency in Washington, with 36 confirmed cases and 11 suspected as of Tuesday afternoon. The state had the sixth-lowest rate of childhood vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella in the country as of 2017, according to the CDC.
In his statement declaring the state of emergency on Friday, Governor Jay Inslee said, “The measles virus is a highly contagious infectious disease that can be fatal in small children, and the existence of 26 confirmed cases [the number at the time the state of emergency was declared] in the state of Washington creates an extreme public health risk that may quickly spread to other counties.”
The measles virus is incredibly contagious, and can even be contracted without being in proximity to an infected person, because it lingers in the air for up to two hours after an infected person leaves the area. It also takes several days for the telltale rash to appear, so people may not realize they’re infected until they’ve already gone to public places, potentially spreading the virus to others.
In declaring the state of emergency, the governor directed state agencies to “do everything reasonably possible” to prevent the disease from spreading further, and to assist communities affected by the outbreak, including the Washington State Military Department and State Emergency Operations Center. Scott Lindquist, MD, Communicable Disease State Epidemiologist for the Washington State Department of Health, tells Rolling Stone that authorities are working to identify every place those infected with the virus went in the last three weeks, so they can warn the public that if they were at those same locations they are at risk. He says that this outbreak started with an international traveler who came to Vancouver [Washington] and came into contact with unvaccinated people, some of whom then traveled to very public places including Costco, Ikea, the international airport, and a basketball game.
“We are obviously recommending vaccination to anyone who is unimmunized,” Lindquist says. The governor also stressed the importance of vaccinations, saying, “The measles vaccine is effective at preventing the disease when given prior to exposure, and proactive steps to provide the vaccination and other measures must be taken quickly to prevent further spread of the disease.” The vaccine is also effective at preventing, or at least lessening, the development of the virus if received with 72 hours after exposure.
“Almost everyone who is not immune will get measles if they are exposed to the measles virus,” Islee said. “DOH urges everyone to check their immunization records to verify they are fully immunized.”
People who have been exposed to the virus but can’t get the vaccine (such as babies under the age of one, pregnant people, and those who are immunocompromised) can receive immunoglobulin, which is an antibody that will bind to the virus and prevent the illness from developing.
Thirty-five of the confirmed cases were located in Clark County, and in 31 of those cases, the person infected had not been immunized. In the four other cases, authorities have not yet verified the patients’ immunization history. Clark County borders Portland, Oregon, raising concerns that the outbreak could spread to the neighboring state.
Most of the people infected are children, who, along with those who are immunocompromised, are most susceptible to the potentially deadly complications of the virus, including pneumonia and encephalitis. Worldwide the disease kills 100,000 people per year, according to the Mayo Clinic, mostly children under the age of five.
Measles was declared completely eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, thanks to near-universal vaccinations. But a recent uptick in parents choosing not to vaccinate their children because of philosophical objections, or (repeatedly disproven) fears that vaccines cause autism, has caused a resurgence. Seattle and Spokane, Washington and Portland, Oregon are among several “hot spots” around the country where there is greater risk of infection with previously eliminated or nearly-eliminated diseases due to high rates of parents opting out of vaccinating. Lindquist pointed out that state-wide in Washington, childhood vaccination rates are mostly high, “it’s just that we have pockets of people with lower rates,” he says.
The so-called “anti-vax movement” is furthered by the sharing of un-founded conspiracy theories and junk science on social media, and despite reports on the role of social media in furthering the dangerous trend, Facebook has so far declined to take action against groups and pages dedicated to misinforming concerned parents about the risks of vaccination.