State officials confirmed Alabama’s first presumptive case of measles last week, and while there aren’t yet concerns of a possible epidemic, officials and pediatricians are still concerned.
On May 2, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) confirmed an infant in St. Clair County had tested positive for measles. According to State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, the child in St. Clair County was too young to have been previously vaccinated.
Harris said ADPH wanted to notify the public out of an abundance of caution, but clarified that Alabama isn’t facing the same type of measurable outbreak that Washington state, New York and more than a dozen other states across the country have recently seen.
“We’re one of the 23 states that has at least one reported case of measles, but this is not an outbreak situation that’s occurring in Alabama,” Harris said. “Most of those have involved international travelers who were older but were not vaccinated, and who were sometimes coming into contact with communities where a high number of unvaccinated individuals live.”
So far in 2019, ADPH has conducted more than 170 investigations into possible measles cases, but the one in St. Clair County has been the only confirmed case so far. However, health officers are continuing to investigate whether anyone else in that area may have been impacted.
The possibility of measles spreading in Alabama has also been a concern for state and local health officials because of the number of children who aren’t vaccinated. Last month, ADPH estimated that up to 32 percent of children ages 5 to 18 haven’t been vaccinated against measles.
“I think the most important thing for the public to know right now is that there’s a very safe and effective way to prevent measles, and that’s becoming immunized,” Harris said. “Vaccines are generally widely available, inexpensive and covered by virtually all insurance. They are very safe and have minimal side effects despite some of the stories that you may have heard.”
Harris didn’t directly address the growing “Anti-Vax” movement many blame for the resurgence of measles – a disease the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said was eliminated in the United States back in 2000. However, the mother of the sick infant in St. Clair County did.
In a Facebook post shortly after ADPH’s press conference, Audrey Peine revealed it was her 5-month-0ld daughter who tested positive for measles even though she and her husband did everything pediatricians recommended to protect their daughter from the disease.
“She got sick because of the negligence of other parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. She got sick because the measles is on the rise due to carelessness of other mothers,” Peine wrote. “Like the mother who’s 5 month old was diagnosed in California, I feel like my community failed us. Even if we only get one more family to vaccinate their children, we’ll be making a difference. Please learn from this.”
Dr. Debra Walks, a pediatrician who works with the Mobile County Health Department, said it was upsetting to see a confirmed case of measles in Alabama, but not unexpected. Walks said she’s seen firsthand the reluctance some parents have to vaccinating their children and has started to see those concerns more frequently than she ever did in the past.
“Most of the time when I ask parents why they don’t vaccinate, they won’t tell me,” Walks told Lagniappe. “Occasionally, it goes against someone’s religious values, but most people who don’t vaccinate are typically those who trust information from the internet or from their relatives and friends more than information they get from a medical professional.”
Like Harris and thousands of other medical professionals who’ve spoken about the opposition to childhood vaccinations, Walks said there’s never been any credible study establishing any link between vaccines for measles and other diseases and the development of Autism, a theory anti-vaccinators have spread on the internet.
It can be frustrating working with parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, but Walks said she also understands that — even though they’re following bad information — many of those parents “believe they’re doing the best thing for their child.”
What’s most troubling, she said, is those types of parents seldom change their minds.
“Every pediatrician is a strong vaccinator because when a parent decides not to vaccinate, they’re not just affecting their own children,” Walks said. “They’re affecting or at least creating the potential to affect everyone that child comes into contact with in the community.”
According to Walks, the mortality rate for measles – about one or two out of 1,000 cases — isn’t significantly high, but it does it exist. She also said the risk of catching measles and developing further complications from it is higher in certain populations such as children younger than five, pregnant women and people with HIV or other diseases that weaken the immune system.
Some of those complications include ear infections, pneumonia, encephalitis and in some rare cases, prolonged exposure to the measles can lead to deafness and intellectual disabilities.
Health officials recommend that children receive their first MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination around 12 months and a second before starting school, between ages 5 and 6. Though, Walks said, there are some precautions parents of young infants can take.
Good handwashing and cough coverage — covering with an elbow or shoulder, not a hand — can help prevent some exposure, but Walks said it’s most important that unvaccinated adults and children younger than 12 months avoid areas any persons known to have measles has been.
“The measles virus is so highly contagious that once an infected person is in that space, even if they leave, you can still contract measles up to two hours afterward,” Walks said. “Or, if they’ve coughed onto any surface like a countertop — for two hours, that’s infected material.”
For adults who may not have access to their historical medical records, there are tests that can be done to determine whether they’ve had both of the necessary vaccinations against measles, and ADPH has also said there’s no danger from additional vaccines even if they have.
More information on measles and how to get vaccinated is available through the ADPH’s website, alabamapublichealth.gov, and at cdc.gov.
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