Healthier Together: Health officials sound alarm on measles

A recent measles case uncovered at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) is prompting health officials to sound the alarm on the disease many thought went away thanks to vaccination efforts.

As vaccine hesitancy grows, so does the risk of measles.

KIRO 7′s Ranji Sinha broke down the issue with Regence BlueShield in our latest Healthier Together.

Crowds at SEA are building again as travel makes a major comeback, with thousands filed through the airport around Memorial Day weekend, and even more probably taking flight this summer.

Most analysts would agree that it’s a positive to once again feel safe enough to take trips as COVID-19 wanes, but what if something else was in the crowd?

As travel comes back, apparently measles (it appears) wants to hitch a ride.

Dr. Nicole Saint Clair with Regence BlueShield sat down with KIRO 7 and admitted to some exasperation that the topic of measles even bears discussion.

“It’s definitely frustrating because I understand the concerns that people have or the hesitance that can be out,” Dr. Saint Clair said.

Public Health for Seattle and King County alerted people last month that it is looking into potential measles cases around May 10 and 11 at SEA.

The agency says it was notified of the cases May 30.

Dr. Saint Clair says a measles alert of any sort seems like a step back.

“It’s really disappointing as a health professional to have a condition that we had succesfully managed at a population level and kinda of lose that management. Around the year 2000 we called measles eradicated,” Dr. Saint Clair said.

Health officials from Public Health for Seattle and King County, to Washington’s Department of Health and the CDC know vaccines for measles can provide roughly 97% protection from infection and that the protection lasts a lifetime.

Airports – including airports like SEA – create a particular risk since transmission can happen before people know they have measles – you line up, get exposed, take your flight, maybe even finish your trip, and at the end, you could come down with measles.

Dr. Saint Clair echoed the feelings of many health professionals as she says measles cases have cropped up in Washington in recent years and around the country.

“Measles is an incredibly infectious condition, and again, it was many, many years of hard work that kind of got it under control, and it’s pretty noteworthy that it didn’t take very long for measles to pop right back up,” Dr. Saint Clair said.

According to Public Health for Seattle and King County, the SEA exposures in early May happened at approximately 9:30 p.m. in the S concourse and through customs to the international arrivals baggage claim at carousel 19 on May 10.

On May 11, between 7:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., another exposure happened in the A Concourse of the airport, at Gate A8.

The airport incidents underline that even small decreases in vaccine rates mean herd immunity to protect everyone is fading.

According to Dr. Saint Clair, “The decrease that we’ve seen from 95% vax rates from K children to 93%, it doesn’t sound like much, but that 2% is the difference in achieving what we talk about as herd immunity — just the small amount is enough for measles to get out into circulation.”

SKCPH says King County is far below the protection threshold needed to prevent the spread of measles.

Measles can lead to ear infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, and rarely, encephalitis (brain inflammation) and can prove deadly — unless you are vaccinated.

Dr. Saint Clair also discounted the dangerous notion that getting the disease and surviving its symptoms makes one’s immune system stronger.

”You don’t want to have measles; there’s no benefit to having it, and measles vax is very safe,” Dr. Saint Clair said.

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