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Doctor: Potential for outbreak of measles looms in Washington

There is a measles outbreak in New York and California and the potential for one right here in the Pacific Northwest.

The California Department of Public Health confirms 49 cases of measles. It might not sound like a large number for one state until you compare it to 2013, when there were just four cases by the end of March.

Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician and executive director of digital health at Seattle Children’s Hospital, said measles is a highly contagious virus.

“You can walk into a room where someone who has had measles has been in up to two hours before that and if you’re unvaccinated it’s very likely that if you breathe the air in that room you’ll get the measles infection,” said Swanson.

Measles cause fever, runny nose, a rash on your body and in our mouth and for people with compromised immune systems, or young children, measles can lead to serious pneumonia and even a brain infection.

So, what’s causing the sudden outbreak of measles?

“What we’re now seeing, unfortunately, is that we’re having outbreaks and pockets of infection because someone will potentially travel away, or even now travel here in the United States, get exposed to an active person with measles, and bring it back to under-vaccinated or unvaccinated communities and then you have an outbreak situation,” Swanson said.

She said there is the potential for an outbreak in Washington. The spread of measles happens “silently” because there is a 7 to 21 day incubation period when you contract the measles virus. Meaning, you don’t know you have it but can spread it.

“Public health officials say a woman in her 20’s became contagious with measles on the 26th of March, after visiting a local family that had measles, that was linked to that outbreak in British Columbia. And she worked while she was contagious at a bakery, and then she traveled,” she explained. “She went to KeyArena, she went to a number of local businesses including a restaurant, a hotel and places that sell things.”

Swanson said she believes one of the reasons we’re seeing a resurgence in measles and other illnesses such as pertussis (or whooping cough), that are suppressible through vaccination, is due to the recent trend towards opting out of vaccinations.

“We have families who don’t necessarily understand the significant and potential risks of remaining unvaccinated and we’re learning that we’re seeing more of this,” Swanson said. “The outbreak right now in California, reports have demonstrated that 75 percent of the cases are in unvaccinated children and the outbreak in New York City we’ve identified and heard that some of those cases even occurred because of potential exposures in the hospital setting.”

She said doctors are brushing up on identifying and treating measles. The risk of exposure is real for children under 5 years old because they aren’t given their first measles vaccination until the age of 12 months and then again until the age of 4 or 5.

Until then, they can contract the potentially deadly virus.

As far as an outbreak for the Puget Sound region, Dr. Swanson said only time will tell.

“Rest easy as a community member who is immunized, you know, we don’t need to panic. What we need to do is just be thoughtful about this, check in with our own healthcare providers and look up the information on the Washington Department of Health on where potential exposures happened March 28, most recently in our region,” said Swanson.

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