A measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest ballooned to 35 cases over the weekend, and officials are bracing for even high numbers in two states where parents can choose not to vaccinate their kids for personal reasons.
The affected area—Clark County, Washington, and Multnomah County, Oregon— has one of the country’s largest concentration of unvaccinated residents.
“Oregon and Washington are two of 18 states that can choose not to vaccinate because of ‘personal or philosophical’ reasons,’” Peter Hotez, a microbiologist at Baylor University who has studied anti-vaxxer hotspots, told The Daily Beast.
“The parents who chose not to vaccinate tend to be far-left or far-right politically,” he said. “It seems to be the only thing the far left and far right can agree on.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared the situation a public health emergency last Friday, when there were 25 confirmed cases. Health authorities confirmed another 10 cases on Monday.
None of the patients had been vaccinated, according to Paul Cieslak, an infectious disease specialist and public health physician in Portland, about 24 miles from the epicenter.
“We’ve been putting out notices begging people not to just go in to their doc if they think they have measles, but to call first,” he said.
Measles is a contagious virus that spreads through the air through coughing and sneezing. Within three to five days, painful rashes start to appear all over the body. Children and those with compromised immune systems are at the highest risk of dying from measles. Most of the patients thus far are children between the ages of 1 and 10.
“These parents think they are avoiding putting something bad in their child's body—but they are putting other people’s children at risk,” Alan Melnick, director of Clark County Public Health, told The Daily Beast.
“There’s a significant number of parents who don't trust ‘big pharma’—but this actually has nothing to do with that,” Melnick said. “They [some parents] think it causes autism which is absolutely untrue.
“It's nonsense. I just don't understand it.”
Dr. Jennifer Vines, a family medicine physician in Portland, said she has seen the misconceptions at work. “I’ve had parents ask if there are ‘preservatives’ in a measles vaccination,” she said. “Others are concerned that it's a lot of shots for a baby. We encourage parents to get the facts.”
Measles is especially problematic because patients might not show symptoms for up to a couple weeks, allowing those infected to spread it to others without realizing it. "We are not out of the woods with this,” Melnick said. “Chances are, it’s going to get worse. Let’s just hope there are no deaths."
Hotez agreed the outbreak was far from over. “I would estimate we'll see 100 cases,” he predicted.