Seattle health, school officials push for higher measles vaccination rates

A doctor vaccinates a young girl. (Photo by Gabriel Pagcaliwaga for Sanofi Pasteur, via Flickr)
A girl receives a vaccination. (Photo by Gabriel Pagcaliwaga for Sanofi Pasteur, via Flickr)

While the Seattle area has so far avoided a widespread measles outbreak — like the one linked to the Disneyland theme park in California — health officials say that some Puget Sound schools need to boost their vaccination numbers to make sure outbreaks are prevented.

“All it takes is one student who isn’t vaccinated,” said Heather Thomas, spokeswoman for the Snohomish County Health District.

As a whole, based on 2013 national averages for at least one dose of MMR vaccinations for children between the ages of 19 and 35 months, 93.5 percent of Washington State children were vaccinated, greater than the overall national average of 91.9 percent.

But at least 86 schools in King and Snohomish counties have a reported vaccine exemption rate of 10 percent or higher, according to The Seattle Times. That means, if a student at one of those schools were to come down with measles and exposed his or her classmates, the chance of spreading the disease at that school would be high.

“We know there are medical and religious reasons, but regardless of if it is five or 20 percent of the student population rate [that is exempt from the vaccine], it only takes one student to spread it,” Thomas said.

Five cases have been reported in Washington this year, including one case of an unvaccinated international tourist from Brazil.

So far, King County Public Health recently confirmed two cases of measles this year. In Snohomish County, a woman who caught measles at Disneyland visited her relatives and went to Everett and Edmonds in January, according to the Department of Health.

Last week, a five-year-old girl from Port Angeles was also confirmed to have recently contracted the virus, causing a quarantine of her school mates whose families cannot prove the student is up-to-date with vaccines.

While the disease was considered eliminated in the United States in 2000, many families since then have chosen not vaccinate their children. Health officials say the recent outbreak of the virus shows how it can spread when people without full protection are exposed.

Measles is a highly contagious disease characterized by symptoms such as fever, rash, coughing, and red, watery eyes. Symptoms can begin seven to 21 days after initial exposure, and spreads when the infected person breathes, coughs, or sneezes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus is so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of people around the infected individual who are not immune will also become infected.

However, while there is no current outbreak in the Puget Sound area, Thomas said that the health department remains concerned about measles because a contagious person could potentially expose hundreds of people.

Reaching out to parents

Thomas said that the Snohomish County Health Department focuses extensively on educating the public about the importance of vaccinations by providing additional information to schools and by offering immunization clinics throughout the county.

For example, the Arlington School District held a clinic this past August for the first time to provide the majority of required vaccinations, including Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR), to students.

“I think it gives the message that this is important for us and the parents appreciated the convenience,” said Andrea Conley, spokeswoman for Arlington Schools. “Travel is just so easy now and we share space in all of our communities so you always have to be wary and treat it [measles] seriously.”

In King County, the Public Health Department recently published interactive maps to show immunization levels at local schools to educate the public about the extent of vaccination rates in their communities.

The maps show that King County’s vaccination exemption rates are highest in North Seattle, Bellevue, Vashon Island, and Arlington, but schools in South King County have the highest rates of vaccination.

Thomas also said state Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, recently introduced House Bill 2009, which, if passed, would make it more difficult for school-aged children to be exempt from vaccinations due to their families’ personal or philosophical beliefs. The bill is scheduled for a public hearing on Feb. 17 in the House Committee on Health Care and Wellness.

“One hundred percent vaccination is our goal as public health officials,” said Hilary Karasz, a spokeswoman for Public Health — Seattle and King County.

King County health department officials confirmed one case of measles from a man who traveled to the city from Clallam County and another case of an adult traveler from Brazil who spent one day in the city.

The Brazilian traveler was contagious prior to an American Airlines flight from Seattle to Dallas on Jan. 25. Before the flight, the traveler spent time at the Sheraton Seattle Hotel and the main terminal of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Rogério De Melo Franco, a recent transplant to Seattle from Brazil, said that he was surprised by the allegations that a Brazilian may have exposed Seattleites to the virus.

“There are mandatory vaccinations in Brazil,” Franco said. “I think it’s almost impossible to have been the source of the outbreak.”

Even though people who are vaccinated are far better protected against the virus, there is still a five percent chance of vaccine failure for people with only one dose of MMR, and a less than one percent chance for people with both doses.

“Up to 400 people die a day of measles around the world so it is definitely a concern that was all but eradicated until recently because of the vaccines, so it is something we are monitoring closely,” Thomas said. “Vaccines are the best way to prevent illnesses so that is our core mission to make sure we have a healthy and safe county.”

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