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As Count Reaches 23, Health Experts Expect Measles Outbreak To Hit Oregon

<p>The third day of a measles rash on a baby boy back in 1963.</p>
<p>The third day of a measles rash on a baby boy back in 1963.</p>

The count of confirmed measles cases in Southwest Washington rose to 23 Tuesday, and Oregon officials say they expect the health crisis to cross the state line soon. 

“We wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see people with measles in Oregon," said Dr. Richard Leman, a public health physician with the Oregon Health Authority. "Getting vaccinated is perhaps the very best way to protect yourself against this.”

Authorities know someone with measles attended the Jan. 11 Trail Blazers game at the Moda Center, and they are tracking other potential exposures. 

Clark County, Washington has already declared a public health emergency. Dr. Alan Melnick, the county public health director, said the strain on resources may lead to a statewide declaration as well. That would allow Washington to request federal help.

If untreated, measles can cause pneumonia and swelling in the brain that can lead to deafness. Immunizations are highly effective against the disease, but in Clark County, 22 percent of students are not vaccinated for it, Melnick said.

The number of unvaccinated children is even lower in some schools.  

"This is completely preventable if we had better immunization rates," Melnick said. "But we're going to continue to have problems like this if the immunization rates are too low." 

Catherine Kroll, the director of infection prevention at the PeaceHealth System, said the hospital had three families come in with the disease — before authorities recognized the outbreak.

She said providers take measles patients to a special room with negative air pressure.

“So it’s not pushing measles virus out, because measles virus is airborne," she said. "After they leave, the room sits for two hours. That allows for the virus to settle out of their air. Once the virus has settled out of the air, you’re able to clean it off of surfaces and kill it with standard disinfection methods.”

PeaceHealth is asking anyone who thinks they may have measles, to call their health care provider before turning up at a hospital or clinic. That limits possible exposure for other people. 

“We are on high vigilance," Kroll said. "As soon as people come in to seek services, we’re doing a quick evaluation to assess them for measles. And anybody who has the potential of measles, we actually go back outside the facility with them, place a mask on them and bring them in through an alternative entrance to minimize the exposure to other patients.”

PeaceHealth has set up its own ‘Incident Command Structure’ to deal with the outbreak and it's sharing best practices with other health care providers.

Kroll said they are also notifying people who were in a clinic or hospital with measles patients about the possibility of being exposed. But she's not aware of anyone who has been exposed that way.

While hospitals and clinics are designed to deal with illness, schools in the area are doing what they can. Gail Spolar, the director of communications at Evergreen Public Schools, said they’ve had cases at four of their 37 schools.

Students who are not immunized cannot return to school until they are. At two Evergreen elementary schools, about 10 percent of students are being kept out.

Public health officials fear the emergency could last at least several more weeks. 

"When you’ve been exposed to measles, if you’re susceptible, the symptoms will begin somewhere between seven and 21 days after you’ve been exposed," Melnick said. "So we’re looking at cases that could develop up until early February."     

Full list of exposure sites, here.

Copyright 2019 Oregon Public Broadcasting