Alaska on alert for measles due to Washington state outbreak

With recent measles outbreaks as close as Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and our health care partners are working proactively to try to prevent measles in Alaska.

Measles is highly infectious and spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It is so contagious that if one person has it, nine out of 10 people around that person will become infected if they are not protected with MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. A child can get measles just by being in a room where a person with measles has been, even up to two hours after that person has left.

The Section of Epidemiology posted a Public Health Advisory titled “Measles Outbreak in Washington state – What Alaskans Should Know” on Jan. 29, 2019. Updates were made to the DHSS measles webpage and our epidemiologists worked with partners at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to post information about measles on video screens at the Anchorage International Airport.

A public education campaign about measles is also underway. Posters have been distributed to DHSS’s immunization partners and to Public Health Nursing statewide reminding Alaskans who are traveling that “Measles is just a plane trip way. Vaccination is our best defense.” If you would like one of these posters or have a means of distributing them, please email elizabeth.manning@alaska.gov. Social media posts are ongoing and public service announcements will also begin airing soon on public radio stations statewide.

The best thing you can do personally is to check with your health care provider or local public health nurse to make sure your family’s immunizations are up to date. The MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine is highly effective at protecting against the measles. Children should get two doses of MMR, starting at 12-15 months with a second dose at 4-6 years of age. Two doses are considered 97 percent effective; booster doses are not needed to protect against measles.

Measles typically starts with a fever, runny nose, cough and red eyes. Two or three days after symptoms begin, tiny white spots (Koplik spots) may appear inside the mouth. Three to five days after symptoms begin, a rash breaks out. It usually begins as flat red spots that appear on the face at the hairline and spread downward to the neck, trunk, arms, legs and feet. Small raised bumps may also appear on top of the flat red spots. The spots may become joined together as they spread from the head to the rest of the body. When the rash appears, a person’s fever may spike to more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit. After a few days, the fever subsides and the rash fades.

Measles was declared eliminated from the United States in 2000 due to a highly effective vaccination program, but outbreaks are once again becoming more common. Measles can be a serious disease in all age groups, though children younger than five and adults over 20 are more likely to suffer complications from measles. Common complications include diarrhea and ear infections (affecting about one in 10 children with measles) that can result in permanent hearing loss. More severe complications include pneumonia (infection of the lungs), which affects as many as one in 20 children with measles, and encephalitis (swelling of the brain), which affects about one child out of every 1,000 who get measles. For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from the disease.

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