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 from 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, 35 confirmed cases and 11 suspected cases have occurred this month in Clark County, Washington, and one in Oregon’s Multnomah County. 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.”
But the measles vaccination rate in Clark County was only 78 percent.
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 Oregon 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. Many Americans don’t do so.
Influenza and related conditions hospitalized 1,562 people in Oregon last year and led to the deaths of three children. Although last year’s vaccine was less effective, an Oregon Health Authority 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 in Oregon.
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.