Humboldt County officials are activating a response protocol amid a measles outbreak in a Washington state suburb of Portland that has seen at least 31 people contract the highly contagious viral disease.
“We’re basically bracing ourselves, crossing our fingers and hoping this doesn’t happen but making sure we’re prepared if it does,” said Humboldt County Public Health Officer Donald Baird, who’s also a family practice physician. “It’s the responsible thing to do.”
Under the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services response, Baird said staff will be notifying local physicians, the Open Door Community Health Centers and the public of the risk, while also stocking up on vaccinations and other supplies.
The outbreak began in Clark County, Washington, just up the river from Portland, which officials have described as an “anti-vaccination hotspot,” where almost 8 percent of school-aged kids have vaccination exemptions and more than 22 percent of public school students haven’t completed their vaccination schedules. Of the 31 confirmed cases thus far, 29 are people under the age of 18. None were vaccinated, according Clark County Department of Public Health
Health officials in Oregon say the state has its first confirmed report of a case in Multnomah County, home of Portland, that is linked to the Washington outbreak, according to news reports.
In addition to Humboldt County’s relative proximity to the Portland metropolitan area, the county can also be considered somewhat of an anti-vaccination hotspot, which adds to officials’ concern.
According to to the California Department of Public Health
, only 88.4 percent of Humboldt County kindergarten students had all their required immunizations at the start of last school year, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s one of the lowest rates in California and substantially below the state average of 95.1 percent.
But the countywide data only tells part of the story, as some schools within Humboldt County have downright dismal vaccination rates. For example, Blue Lake Elementary only saw 70 percent of its kindergarteners vaccinated at the start of last school year. Coastal Grove Charter School in Arcata, meanwhile, saw a majority of its incoming kindergarteners (53 percent) start school without being fully vaccinated. Mattole Valley Charter School had the lowest kindergarten vaccination rate in the county, at just 43 percent.
Countywide, at least five elementary schools, five middle schools and a dozen childcare centers qualify as “most vulnerable” in a California Department of Public Health database, meaning fewer than 80 percent of students are fully vaccinated.
This substantially increases the potential breadth of a measles outbreak, should one of these areas be exposed, said Baird.
“This is probably one of the most infectious agents that we know of,” Baird said, adding that if a person infected with measles walks through a room, everyone who walks through the same room within the next hour would be exposed, with those unvaccinated facing a 90 percent likelihood of coming down with the disease. “There are pockets of susceptible children who have not been immunized and if they’re together in a congregate setting such as a school, there’s a very high risk.”
Making that infection rate even more alarming is the fact that people who come down with measles experience only cold-like symptoms for up to four days, after which the tell-tale rash begins. Baird said it’s also important for people to understand that “this is not a trivial disease,” noting that infections could lead to permanent damage to one’s immune system, eyes, ears and brain. Worldwide, an average of 18 children die every hour from the disease, he said.
The good news, Baird said, is that the disease is largely preventable with the vaccination, which is 97 percent effective. And while there has been a lot of misinformation floating around online linking the vaccination to autism, that’s been refuted by numerous studies by numerous academic institutions that have determined no such link exists and that children who have received the vaccine are at no greater risk.
“(The fear of vaccination) is a belief system that is not scientifically based,” Baird said.
Baird said local health officials are doing what they can to prepare for the possibility of a local outbreak and urged people not to overreact, noting that people with vaccinations have little to fear.
“You don’t have to be scared,” he said. “You just have to get your kids vaccinated.”
For more information on vaccination rates in local schools, check out the interactive map here
. And for more information on where to get immunizations, visit the DHHS webpage here
or Open Door Health Clinics’ here