As a society, we have made such progress against once-common illnesses that we forget they are still around and still potentially life-threatening. The measles outbreak in Southeast Washington exemplifies what can happen if we lower our vigilance — and our vaccinations.
High rates of vaccination kept measles under control in the U.S., with about 60 cases annually during 2000 to 2010, according to the Mayo Clinic. In recent years, that average has climbed to 205 cases, most often among people who either were unvaccinated or did not know whether they were. There were 350 cases in the U.S. last year.
As of this writing, nearly four dozen confirmed and suspected cases have occurred this month in the Vancouver-Portland area, plus a case in Seattle. At least 30 of the patients had not been immunized — even though getting the combined measles-mumps-rubella vaccine is safer than contracting measles.
Measles is so contagious, and potentially fatal in young children, that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a state of emergency. People who visited more than 40 locations in the Vancouver-Portland area might have been exposed.
“It’s one of the most contagious viruses we have. It can have really serious complications,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, the Clark County health officer. “And it’s entirely preventable with an incredibly cheap and safe vaccine.”
In Pacific County, there are at least 124 public school students who have not been fully vaccinated against measles. The measles vaccination rate in Clark County was only 78 percent. There is much interaction between Clark and Pacific counties, placing all unimmunized people here at risk. This risk is needless, considering how safe and effective the vaccine is.
People forget that measles killed hundreds of people each year, and caused serious health complications for thousands more, before the disease was declared eradicated in the U.S. at the start of the 21st century.
But measles persisted elsewhere. Around the world, more than 100,000 people die from measles each year, most of them children under age 5.
The measles outbreak in the Vancouver-Portland area, combined with an increase in flu cases, has caused some hospitals to restrict visitors.
Flu is so common that people often forget about its potential consequences as well. Yet influenza and related complications killed an estimated 80,000 Americans last winter, far above a typical year because last year’s vaccine was not as effective.
The influenza virus mutates, so each year’s vaccine is formulated to provide immunity against the strains considered most probable to cause an outbreak. That is why getting a flu vaccine each year matters.
Influenza and related conditions killed 296 Washingtonians last flu season — though only 17 so far in the much milder 2018-19 season. A study found that seniors who got high-dose flu shots were less likely to be hospitalized.
“Pandemic,” a popular board game, shows how easily diseases can spread. The Vancouver-Portland measles outbreak is not nearly an epidemic, let alone a pandemic. Neither is this year’s flu season.
But it is worth noting that this winter is the 100th anniversary of the worst pandemic in recorded history. As the flu mutated into a global killer, it took the lives of 50 million to 100 million people, including about 675,000 in the U.S. during the course of one year.
This grim anniversary is a reminder that we dare not forget the past, ignore what could happen in the future — or fail to get our vaccinations.
To quote a Washington Post story from last year about the pandemic, “the 1918 nightmare serves a reminder. If a virulent enough strain were to emerge again, a century of modern medicine might not save millions from dying.”
There were no worthwhile flu vaccines in 1917-18. There are today, just as there is a measles vaccine.