More than 50 people have now been infected by the measles in an outbreak across Southwest Washington state and Northwest Oregon—and doctors and nurses say it’s spurring people to get vaccinated.
At Sea Mar Community Health Center in Vancouver, Washington, administrator Shawn Brannan says so many have been coming in for a measles shot recently, they had to almost ten times as much vaccine as usual.
“Larger populations that typically don’t vaccinate their children for their own reasons are now in a mad-dash, if you will, to get vaccinated,” says Brannan.
He said many patients are from the former Soviet Union, where distrust of government runs deep.
But he says the clinic is also getting lots of other patients with their own reasons not to vaccinate.
“It’s the Google monster unfortunately,” says Bannan. “Once people Google they find all these warnings and adverse reactions. And it can sometimes blur what’s really important for the child or even people to get.”
Branna thinks people also see their kids getting colds this time of the year—with runny noses, red eyes and coughs—and worry it might be measles. Colds and measles have the same early symptoms.
Clark County public health director Dr. Alan Melnick is exasperated.
“I mean this is a lousy way to get vaccination rates up,” says Melnick. “I wish we had vaccination rates up ahead of time. I wish it didn’t take an outbreak and one child already being hospitalized.”
The Washington State Health Department says about 530 people were immunized against measles in this area last January. This January, there’ve been more than three thousand immunizations.
Across the Columbia River in Portland, Ore., nurse Practitioner Nancy Casey helps run the Health Center at Roosevelt High School.
She’s had kids come to her to catch up on their shots because their parents didn’t believe in vaccination. She remembers one particular 16-year-old.
“The child said, ‘you know my mom really doesn’t believe in vaccines, but I’m thinking that I want to start,'” says Casey.
Oregon law allows children 15 or older to consent to physical health care. So Casey can vaccinate them without first informing a parent.
Casey says she asks students who come to her for shots questions, like “why doesn’t your parent want you to have vaccines?” “Do they know that you’re here?” And, “What would they say if they knew you were here?”
She also asks what they know about the disease the vaccine is formulated to prevent, and why that could be beneficial.
“It’s helping them be advocates,” Casey says. “And then we do go over scenarios. Like, ‘what if your mom finds out because you tell them?'”
In the case of the 16 year old, the student got the vaccines from Casey and the parents never saw a bill because it went to an Oregon Medicaid program.
“And by the end of her catching up to her immunization schedule over like a year and a half period, she had told her mom,” says Casey. She says the student’s mother wasn’t thrilled, but didn’t make an issue of it.
Across the Columbia River in Vancouver, Wash., Shona Carter sits at home as she’s been doing for months now.
She has leukemia, which means doctors had to kill off her immune system and give her a new one in the form of a bone marrow transplant.
But a new immune system has to adapt to diseases all over again.
“I mean you’re a baby. You’re brand new. You have to get all of your vaccines redone,” says Carter.
“Some of them you can’t have done immediately because they’re like live weakened vaccines,” Carter says. “So the measles is important for me to get, but I can’t have it right now.”
Carter’s immune system isn’t strong enough so the outbreak has her very worried.
But there’s not much she can do except follow doctors orders like staying at home, using lots of hand sanitizer and wearing a mask.
“I don’t want any setbacks,” says Carter.
“One of my fears is getting something like the measles which could…potentially kill me because I’m not strong enough to fight it off.”
Measles can kill or blind, but that’s rare.
Authorities say the outbreak is still evolving. They don’t expect it to end any time soon.
Washington and Oregon are two of 17 states that let children go to school unvaccinated because of personal beliefs. Both state legislatures are now considering changes to those laws.