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Local health official discusses what to do in event of measles outbreak

Brandon Paykamian • Feb 10, 2019 at 12:15 AM

A measles outbreak near Portland, Oregon has continued to spread in Oregon and Washington with 49 confirmed cases as of last week, putting health officials on alert about future outbreaks elsewhere.

As the movement against vaccines takes hold in regions across the country, Ballad Health Director of Infection Prevention Jamie Swift said there has been a renewed concern about this disease most prevalent in the previous century.

On Thursday, Swift spoke to the Press to teach readers more about measles and what health officials would have to do in the event of an outbreak.

Have there been any cases of measles here?

Measles has been kept in check in Northeast Tennessee since most people have been vaccinated, with the exception of some with rare medical issues and infants younger than 12 months old.

But if this were to change, Swift said health officials would have to act fast and work with the Tennessee Department of Health in a concerted effort to contain the outbreak.

“We have not had any cases,” she said. “We’re constantly screening and reminding team members to think of measles when they see the symptoms.

“If we have a case, it will require a lot of public health intervention.”

Why are outbreaks happening elsewhere?

Swift said anti-vaccine sentiment is a driving force behind outbreaks like the one in and around Portland. This is particularly problematic with a disease like measles — caused by the highly contagious rubeola virus, which can be spread in the air by breathing, coughing or sneezing.

“If you look at where outbreaks have occurred, there are pockets of people who aren’t immunized,” she said. “These are groups of people who don’t believe in immunization.”

What are some early symptoms people should look out for? What complications are associated with measles?

Measles often starts with symptoms similar to a common cold. But once people notice the rash, Swift said it is often too late, and people can spread the disease before then.

“People may think they have a common cold, so typically it starts out with a cough and a runny nose,” she said. “So people are spreading measles before they know they have it.”

Swift said measles can drastically alter someone’s life, and can even lead to lifelong complications like encephalitis. But because most people have been immunized, Swift said she believes some people are unaware of dangers associated with the virus.

“They haven’t seen how serious it can be. They think it's just a childhood disease, but it’s not — it can be extremely life-altering for someone who gets it,” she said.

What’s the best way to combat a measles outbreak? 

Swift said the solution is simple — get vaccinated to prevent outbreaks in the first place.

Of the 100,000-plus deaths that happen every year from measles, almost all of them are preventable with a vaccine. An immunization rate of 93 percent is required for what is referred to as “herd immunity.”

For people who cannot get the vaccine, it is also important to keep in mind that traveling to certain areas can increase the risk of exposure.

“The biggest thing I can say is that the vaccine is safe and highly effective, and we encourage everyone to be vaccinated,” she said, adding that the vaccine is 97 percent effective. "If you have been immunized and exposed, you will most likely not be infected.”

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