Malheur County health officials alarmed by measles outbreak

Health officials urge parents to make sure their children are vaccinated to prevent measles. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – The Malheur County Health Department is keeping a wary eye on a measles outbreak in Washington’s Clark County.

Medical officials confirmed Monday that 47 cases of measles were confirmed in that county so far. Of those 47, 41 were not immunized for measles.

The outbreak was a surprise, said Angelica Resendiz, immunization coordinator for the county health department.

“It is not too common we hear about outbreaks like this. You maybe hear of one or two cases,” said Resendiz.

Measles nearly vanished after a vaccine was developed in 1963. Between 1997 and 2013 just over 200 cases were reported in the U.S. but the virus appears to be making a comeback. The Washington outbreak isn’t confined to Clark County.

Last week one case of measles was reported in Multnomah County with a suspected case in Deschutes County.

Tana Waller, a communicable disease nurse for the county health department, said the outbreak is “concerning.”

“You can breathe in the (measles) droplets unaware and be contagious before you have the rash. You could be exposed and not know it,” said Waller.

Resendiz said the measles outbreak could spread.

“I guess I would say I would be worried just because the outbreak can come out this way. There are a lot of travelers,” said Resendiz.

There have been no cases of measles reported in Malheur County, Resendiz said.

The most effective way to avoid the virus is through immunizations.

“There is pretty high rate of contracting the disease if you haven’t been immunized,” said Resendiz.

Now, health department guidance calls for all children at 12 months of age to receive the MMR – measles, mumps and rubella – vaccine.

Children then should get a booster MMR shot when they are about 5.

No one, Waller said, should underestimate the seriousness of measles.

“It is a very big deal. It can be very serious,” said Waller.

Waller said measles has the capacity to cause blindness, encephalitis – swelling of the brain – and pneumonia.

“A lot of people don’t realize it is a pretty serious virus. It can leave pretty severe damage,” said Waller.

The good news for Malheur County is its immunization rate for measles among children – and most other diseases – is high.

In 2018 the immunization rate for measles in the county was 98.6 percent, said Waller.

“I think that says Oregon has done a pretty good job with immunizations. People are compliant with the immunization of their children,” said Waller.

Waller said there has not been a case of measles reported to the health department in the county in more than 20 years.

Measles symptoms range from a fever and dry cough to sore throat, runny nose, inflamed eyes, mouth sores and a skin rash that consists of large, flat blotches.

Waller said the county health department is working to get the word out about the virus.

“We are in the communities and spreading the word through schools and daycares and we send reports to providers to be on the lookout,” said Waller.

Waller said people may opt out of the vaccine for their children.

“If they chose not to get their immunization they should just know the risk,” said Waller.

Malheur County had about 70 school children who opted out of the measles vaccine in 2018.