Failing to prepare? Preparing to fail.

February 21, 2019

By Mark Springer
Epidemiologist, Spokane Regional Health District

We are very lucky in the Pacific Northwest that we don’t suffer from the same forces of nature that arise regularly in other parts of the country. We have no tornadoes or hurricanes in Spokane County, but we do have a looming public health emergency, capable of wreaking its own kind of havoc—measles is now at our doorstep.

Benjamin Franklin said it best, but unfortunately, there is a subset of individuals in Spokane County who are living it, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Some people in our community are not prepared for measles. Just like communities prepare for natural disasters, we must prepare too for dangerous disease outbreaks. All we have to do is look to Europe, where almost 13,000 people were diagnosed with measles in 2018 and 35 deaths were blamed on the disease.

Some may say, “Why are you being such a fearmonger? Measles isn’t in Spokane and nobody in Washington has died in this current measles outbreak.” You would be correct about no one dying, for now, but you would not be prudent. When there is a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico, the prudent person does not say, “It is not a hurricane and even if it was, it is not here in my community.” The prudent person would start getting plywood for windows and start acquiring bottled water and batteries. We all know this as history has shown us what hurricanes do every single year and how they can start as smaller tropical storms. The measles outbreak in Clark County may be that tropical storm that never touches us in Spokane, or it may be the hurricane equivalent of an epidemic that affects us locally.

Perhaps it is difficult to prepare for something we haven’t seen or heard a lot about—after all, measles  hasn’t been a widespread epidemic in Washington for some time. Yet, New York state’s outbreak has been going on since September 2018 and they are at 218 cases. Could our state be headed there, growing on its current 64 cases?

High vaccination rates historically provided us protection from widespread measles epidemics, yet immunization rates continue to fall. We are headed back in time by having to prepare for diseases that were once eradicated. We prepare by getting vaccinated. If we look at the measles outbreak in Clark County, we see that, of the confirmed cases, only two people who were vaccinated with measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine got measles. Ninety-seven percent of those who got measles did not have documented proof of immunity. Those without immunity—whether it is due to circumstance or choice—are the people that we need to be committed to protecting from this very dangerous disease.

Just as you lay in supplies for the storm, there are things that you can do, in addition to verifying immunization status, to prepare for a case of measles in our community, especially if you know anyone who may be at risk.

  • Learn the facts about measles – Talk to your doctor, visit credible sites from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or World Health Organization. If my car’s brakes squeak my mechanic is a credible source of information, not my healthcare provider. But my healthcare provider is the person I want to talk to about my chest pain, not my mechanic or friend who is a computer programmer. Talk to the provider that you trust with all of your family’s health questions to give you advice about vaccination.
  • Weigh the benefits of vaccination against the risk of measles – No parent would want to risk harm to their child, yet many parents are overwhelmed by all the conflicting information about vaccines that we see on social media. And in times of no outbreaks or disease, it may seem counterintuitive to vaccinate against something you cannot see. The MMR vaccine has stood the test of time as being very effective at preventing measles and has an excellent safety record. It is the most studied medication, ever. As we look to the outbreak in Clark County we see that 59 of its 62 measles cases are in those 18 years old and younger. This is a disease that has targeted kids who are not protected. Prudent parents look to make the best choices for their kids and are willing to periodically re-evaluate their positions to best protect their children.
  • Learn how to protect those at risk – If your child is over 12 months of age, he or she can get the MMR vaccine and that one shot will provide up to 93% protection from measles. The second shot boosts protection to 97%. If you have children that are too young to be vaccinated it is important that people around them are protected from measles, as they can provide a wall or barrier against the disease. You can also talk with your doctor about what you should do if they are exposed to measles.
  • Take action – We want you to be in a strong position where you know you did everything possible to protect the health of your family. You saw the risks of what is happening in Clark County. You learned from others’ experiences and spoke with your healthcare providers about measles and the vaccine and took the steps necessary to protect your children by making sure that they were no longer susceptible to this very infectious and dangerous disease of children.
“Experience is a cruel teacher. It gives a test before presenting the lesson. ~ Anonymous”