WA measles outbreak risks Vashon health
By Mari Kanagy, Co-Content Editor
Vashon is well-known for its high population of unvaccinated residents and anti-vaxxers. Now, much of the community feels threatened due to the recent measles outbreak in Washington State, concentrated in Clark County. The first case was reported in early February. Seventy-one cases have since been reported — 70 in Clark County and one reported case in King County. Washington State Governor Jay Inslee declared the outbreak a public health emergency in January.
Currently, measles is largely absent in King County and completely clear from Vashon. However, the risk for the disease’s introduction to the island is certainly not out of the question, according to school nurse Sarah Day.
“The risk is always very real because you can bring it back from just a plane ride away. We had eliminated measles from the United States — all the cases have been tracked to people coming back from overseas,” Day said.
Measles can be more dangerous and spreadable than other viruses due to its highly contagious nature.
“You can catch the virus from someone who had left the room two hours ago,” Day said.
The disease was previously eradicated in the U.S. in 2000, meaning it was not present in the country for a 12-month period. However, outbreaks have become increasingly more common in recent years. In 2014, a record of 667 cases was recorded in the U.S.
“We have measles exposures more and more frequently, unfortunately,” Day said. “This is all due to not vaccinating, because [the vaccine] is a highly effective vaccination.”
The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is required for attendance at the school, unless a child is given an exemption for receiving the vaccine. Exemptions can be granted through the state for “personal/philosophical, religious or medical reasons,” according to the Washington State Department of Health.
However, state legislators are currently reviewing these exemption regulations. House Bill 1638 — which has currently passed committee, and is in its second reading — would remove the personal and philosophical exemption for MMR vaccine for school entry. Senate Bill 5841 — also currently in its second reading — would remove the aforementioned exemptions for all vaccines required for school entry.
The proposals have received support, as well substantial pushback from Washington residents.
“The current direction of policymaking, especially in regards to health, leaves very little room for people to make intuitive personal decisions anymore,” yearbook teacher Nicky Wilks said. “I think [the policy] sets a dangerous precedent, which is to say, we use emotionally charged situations and events to make bold sweeping policy decisions.”
Dissenters of the bill critique its suppression of individual choice, particularly as it relates to a factor that impacts personal health.
“I’m very pro informed choice, so I’m generally skeptical of any top-down policies that suggest individuals or communities or families absolutely have to do something all the time,” Wilks said. “Especially with something like personal, community, and global health, I’m hesitant to immediately trust policies that don’t seem to take into account all the science, and especially the individual stories and experiences of families that don’t fit the common mold.”
I n order to increase vaccination rates within the district, the school notifies families that their child has an exemption for the MMR vaccine, so that if there was an outbreak within the school district, their child could be taken out of school, potentially for months — up to 21 days after the last case in the community is diagnosed. This action falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health (DOH).
“Statistically, we’re looking better at Chautauqua, but not as good at McMurray or the high school because so many kids have exemptions,” Day said. “With the kindergarteners, we’re seeing that folks are really vaccinating their kids more often than [they were] several years ago.”
Still, Day would like to see increased vaccination rates within the school district.
“We’re not at a level where we have what’s considered community immunity — which you have to be at 95 percent [immunity] at least — but we’ve made great strides,” Day said. “88 [percent] was the low, and now we’re up to 93 [among Kindergarteners].”
The disease’s recurrence in Washington State has increased the number of children getting vaccinated in the Vashon school district.
“It really felt great to do [recent] outreach and have so many families get back to us saying that ‘Yeah, I’m getting my child vaccinated,’” Day said. “I feel like the tide is kind of turning.”
Student vaccinations, however, only account for part of the potential problem of a measles outbreak on the island.
“One of my biggest concerns right now is making sure that administration is aware that our staff has to have proof of immunity … because if we have an outbreak and a teacher doesn’t have proof of immunity, they can’t work,” Day said. “Many of us … don’t have vaccine records.”
According to Day, this is due to the recent integration of electronic medical records. Those without immunization records may need to get their blood drawn to prove their immunity.
In the event of an outbreak on the island and within the school district, the school would follow the directions of the DOH, which would notify the school and work with families to determine the potential exposures.
“It would be treated pretty vigorously, I would say, if we did have an exposure here with one of our students at the schools,” Day said.
An outbreak largely affects individual students and families, but also has an impact on the larger community. It (also) costs taxpayers a considerable amount of money in the investigation and treatment of the sources of the disease. Washington State and Clark County have spent over $1 million on the outbreak so far.
“[In] a press conference given by the DOH, [they were] talking about all the things they can’t do right now because they’re focusing on a completely preventable measles outbreak,” Day said.
However, some criticize the state and school’s immediate response of enforcing and encouraging vaccination.
“Encouraging folks to research the risk factors and the ways to prevent spread is really important,” Wilks said. “Encouraging people to rush out and get a vaccine is not helpful, in particular because some of these are live vaccines, and after you get vaccinated you are actually contagious.”
The MMR vaccine is classified as a live attenuated vaccine, meaning that it contains an altered pathogen that is injected into the bloodstream. According to PubMed.gov, however, there is “no major risk of transmission associated with any live attenuated vaccine.”
Day emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated to help prevent the disease’s spread to the island.
“The vaccination is a highly effective vaccine with a low rate of complications, especially if you do it in a timely fashion.”