Local health officials tuned into national measles upswing

February 17, 2019

Although Montana hasn’t been added to the growing list of states battling a measles outbreak, public health officials have turned their attention west to Washington, where the bulk of the nation’s cases have been reported.

Federal health officials have confirmed more than 100 cases spread across 10 states. Of those, more than half were recorded in Washington state, where officials say the wave originated.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, measles is a highly contagious virus that can spread to others through coughing or sneezing. The disease is so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not immune will also become infected.

Measles is 100 percent preventable with immunization.

The spontaneous outbreak has spurred debates over the nation’s recent uptick in so-called “anti-vaxxers,” or people who are opposed to vaccination, who are typically parents who do not wish to vaccinate their children.

“We understand it’s a personal choice, but we want to promote that the vaccine is effective,” said Michelle Kimball, emergency preparedness program manager for North Valley Hospital and Kalispell Regional Medical Center. “The vaccine has the potential to eradicate measles and it’s been done in the past.”

Montana continues to rank as one of the states with the lowest immunization rate in the nation and state law allows medical and religious exemptions for school-required vaccinations.

According to a recent school immunization report produced annually by the state, Flathead County saw an increase in the state’s rate of medical exemptions, but a slight decrease in religious exemption rates from 2016 to 2017.

Of the state’s 56 counties, 29 experienced a higher rate in religious vaccine exemptions over the two calendar years and 17 saw an increase in medical vaccine exemptions.

For the 2018 to 2019 school year, the documented measles vaccination rate was 92.6 percent for Flathead County schools and the documented vaccination rate for kindergarten classes is 87.7 percent.

“Evidence has shown that a vaccination rate of at least 96 percent is needed in order to prevent the spread of the disease and protect the community,” said Lisa Dennison of the Flathead City-County Health Department.

The last measles outbreak in Flathead County occurred in 1988, but Dennison said since vaccination rates in Flathead County schools have continued to decline in recent years, the community is potentially at risk of an outbreak.

The World Health Organization recently added “vaccine hesitancy” to its list of top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Others that made the list include air pollution, weak primary health care and HIV.

The organization says vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease. Vaccinations prevent 2 to 3 million deaths a year, and an additional 1.5 million deaths could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.

The World Health Organization website cites measles as an example. The organization has seen a 30 percent increase in cases globally, stating “the reasons for this rise are complex, and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence.”

Kalispell Regional and other health-care facilities in the Flathead Valley practice emergency-preparedness exercises to gauge whether the community can handle an outbreak.

In November, about 40 staff members representing multiple health venues across the county participated in a full-scale exercise that simulated a measles outbreak. The event assured facilities from Polson to Eureka were able to treat the infectious disease, should an outbreak occur.

“I would say the exercise, the follow-up and after-action report definitely instilled preparedness for our whole system,” Kimball said.

Kimball said they chose to simulate a measles outbreak because there is an actual possibility the disease could find its way to the valley, as opposed to other infectious diseases such as ebola.

Health officials continue to urge locals to get vaccinated. If someone believes they have been exposed to someone who has measles, Kimball said they should call ahead before going to their local hospital or urgent care.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says measles typically begins with a high fever, cough, runny nose and red, watery eyes. The symptoms generally appear about seven to 14 days after a person is infected.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com