Arkansas health officials fear possible measles outbreak on the horizon


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The 2019 measles outbreak keeps growing and keeps coming closer to Arkansas. State health leaders fear it will not be long before the disease crosses our borders.

“I’ve been concerned about measles for a long time,” Dr. Jennifer Dillaha said Monday.

Dillaha, the Medical Director for Immunizations for the Arkansas Department of Health, said she is closely watching the national measles outbreak. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been 555 confirmed cases of measles in 20 states since the beginning of the year. None of those cases were reported in Arkansas, some were discovered in Texas and Missouri.

“My concern is that it’s in the surrounding states,” Dillaha stated. “It really would take just one flight of an aircraft coming into Little Rock, or someone from outside the country to come for a visit, or someone to travel outside the country and then come home and bring it back.”

Measles was officially “eliminated” in 2000. Children typically receive two doses of the vaccine, (known as the MMR vaccine because the injection includes vaccines mumps and rubella), once at one year old and again at five years old. 

Dillaha said that vaccine schedule is up to 97 percent effective in protecting people for the rest of their lives. “It’s really one of the nicest vaccines we have, in terms of being effective, as well as long duration of protection,” she claimed.

She also said that the vaccine’s effectiveness may be partly to blame for the recent outbreak.

“The children from the past who died from the measles or had retardation are not here to tell you how severe the disease can be,” she explained. “It’s the people who survive it and do well, and so people don’t realize that that is not the case for all children.

“People, in general, have difficulty evaluating the risk of the vaccine versus the risk of the disease. And, oftentimes, they overestimate the risk of the vaccine and greatly underestimate the risk of the disease. And partly, that’s because the vaccine has been so effective, people haven’t seen the disease. They don’t know how severe it is.”

Dillaha said she knows well the danger posed by measles. “When I was in second grade, I had the measles,” she mentioned. “I can tell you: they were the two most miserable weeks of my life!”

She feels fortunate to have not needed hospitalization because of the illness. She said many children either lose their hearing or suffer changes to their brain function that affect behavior and development.

“Nowadays, people are unfamiliar with it,” she added. “They underestimate what a serious, terrible disease this is, and so they are not as motivated as parents were years ago to make sure their children are up-to-date with their vaccines.”

That bears out in the number of parents who claim exemptions from vaccinating their children. Arkansas law allows parents to opt their children out of mandated vaccinations for medical, philosophical, and religious reasons. 

RELATED: U.S. measles count up to 555, most reported cases since 2014

According to new data from ADH, the number of children with such exemptions has increased by approximately 25 percent in the last five years.

Dillaha says clusters of unvaccinated people are what cause measles, a highly contagious disease on its own, to spread so quickly. 

“If someone is unprotected from the measles and gets exposed—like they don’t have their vaccinations—there’s a 90 percent likelihood,” she stated, “that they will develop the measles.”

Past outbreaks of measles have occurred because people passed through the same gate at the airport or walked near each other at Disneyland. Dillaha mentioned that if a person shows up at a doctor’s office and tests positive for measles, the exam room will be quarantined for two hours to prevent anyone else from contracting it.

Guidelines call for two doses of the MMR vaccine for children, but from 1957-1989, children were only advised to receive one dose. 

Dillaha said one dose is nearly as effective as two, but the difference is enough for her to recommend that adults who only receive one dose as children get another.

RELATED: New York City orders mandatory measles vaccinations for neighborhood

“So, we encourage people to protect themselves now, so that in the event that they might be exposed to the measles virus and not know it, that they would be protected.”

A federal program provides free vaccines for all children. Children can get them at every county health unit in Arkansas, as well as many pharmacies and doctors’ offices.

Dillaha said, while exemptions have increased, the vaccination rate in Arkansas has increased, as well. She said that is due to improved logistics to provide access to vaccines in rural parts of the state.

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