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Measles Outbreak Begins In Washington State And Spreads To Oregon


Public health officials are struggling to contain a measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest. The number of people infected has grown to 35 - with 11 more suspected cases. Molly Solomon from Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

MOLLY SOLOMON, BYLINE: Patients in Washington state who visit the Vancouver Clinic are greeted with free face masks and pumps of hand sanitizer as they enter the health facility. A large sign outside urgent care alerts patients who have measles symptoms, like a runny nose or a high fever, to put on a mask before entering the waiting room.

MARCIA SPARLING: If you haven't been immunized, we'd like you to wear a mask.

SOLOMON: Marcia Sparling is the medical director at the Vancouver Clinic. Two of their facilities are among more than three dozen locations where people may have been exposed. Other places include an IKEA, Costco and a Portland Trail Blazers game. Sparling says the clinic recently created a measles taskforce that meets daily. Sometimes they see patients in the parking lot to avoid contamination. Doctors are also asking patients with measles symptoms to come later in the day to avoid spreading the illness during busy hours.

SPARLING: We're trying to be as careful as we can because we'd like to try to shut down this infection chain.

SOLOMON: The outbreak started in southwest Washington's Clark County but has been spreading. One case has been confirmed across the river in Portland, Ore., and another has been identified in Seattle. Health officials say they suspect another case linked to the outbreak in central Oregon. The viral illness is highly contagious and can remain in the air for up to two hours. Ninety percent of people exposed to measles who have not been vaccinated will get it, says Clark County public health director Alan Melnick.

ALAN MELNICK: We have an exquisitely contagious disease, can be really severe, and we have a prevention for it that's cheap, incredibly effective and incredibly safe. And we wouldn't be dealing with this if we had vaccination rates up.

SOLOMON: Thirty-one of the confirmed patients had not been vaccinated against measles, and the region has been identified by health experts as an anti-vax hotspot. Clark County's vaccination rate is 78 percent, well below the 94 percent level necessary to protect people who can't get vaccinated for medical reasons. Melnick blames misinformation shared on social media for the area's lower-than-normal rates.

MELNICK: What keeps me up at night is worrying that we're going to have a child die from this, something that's completely preventable.

SOLOMON: It's a worry shared by many parents in the area, especially those with newborn infants. The vaccine is generally not given to children under a year old.

MEGAN JASURTA: Tristan, can you say hi?

SOLOMON: Vancouver resident Megan Jasurta holds 11-week-old Tristan as he wakes up from a nap. She hasn't felt comfortable leaving the house with him and worries he might be vulnerable without a vaccine.

JASURTA: Like, he's on house arrest.

SOLOMON: Jasurta's other two kids, who are 3 and 6, are both up to date on their shots, but she still has them wash their hands when they come home and change into new clothes before seeing Tristan.

JASURTA: I think I kind of gave into the fear right away because of having such a young child.

SOLOMON: For now, Jasurta and her family are avoiding crowded areas and even decided to delay their daughter's birthday party. She knows some people in her community choose not to vaccinate their kids, and it's not worth putting her family at risk. For NPR News, I'm Molly Solomon in Vancouver, Wash.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENSEES' "LUNAMOTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.