Originally Published: February 4, 2015 6:03 a.m.
PRESCOTT - A measles outbreak has not yet occurred in Yavapai County, but local health officials are taking no chances.
They are proving hyper-vigilant in their public education campaigns, and interactions with patients, to protect against the illness that has no antidote other than vaccination.
"The message is that if you haven't gotten vaccinated, get vaccinated," said Dr. Joseph Goldberger, the chief medical officer at Yavapai Regional Medical Center. "If parents don't vaccinate their children... you're taking a pretty big risk."
Highly contagious, measles is a viral illness that lives in the nose and throat mucus of an infected person. Before any rash occurs, and for as long has four days after, the illness can spread to those the infected person encounters.
If a schoolchild is diagnosed, all other children in that facility who have not been vaccinated must be kept home for 21 days, with officials encouraging they be vaccinated prior to their return, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Another concern is that the virus can live up to two hours on surfaces, so that touching a grocery cart, office door knob or riding a bus can infect someone who is not yet immunized, officials said.
The threat of a local outbreak stems from confirmation of seven cases in Arizona -resulting from exposure to a family vacationing at Disneyland - prompting concerns in the health community about impact on the most vulnerable: never-before vaccinated infants and children or adults with compromised immune systems.
"I am certain we will have more just based on the sheer number of people exposed this time," Arizona Department of Health Director Will Humble stated in a news release.
The lack of official cases to date does not mean that anyone can afford to be cavalier about the risk, said David McAtee, public information officer for Yavapai County Community Health Services.
Beyond the immediate push for childhood vaccinations, or immunizations for adults who were never vaccinated or previously contracted the illness, McAtee said the county is working with the schools to promote vaccination.
Yavapai County is known to have one of the highest rates of families opting against childhood immunizations in the state, McAtee and state statistics confirm.
As of last year, about 11 percent of the county's kindergartners were not vaccinated based on parents signing an exemption form, too often readily available at the school offices.
In Arizona, parents are allowed for "personal belief" to opt out of immunizations for their children, a broad definition that has led to more families choosing that path. The county wants to make exceptions a rare rather than convenient option, McAtee said.
Health department nurses attended the school open houses this year with the aim of informing parents of the benefits of immunizations that are not just against measles, mumps and rubella, but other diseases such as polio and chicken pox, McAtee said. The goal is to encourage schools to send families who want to be exempt to the county health office prior to making that decision. To have forms on hand makes it too convenient, he said.
Yavapai Pediatrics Dr. Clarissa Smith in Prescott Valley said the real shame of this potential outbreak is that 15 years ago this rampantly contagious illness was non-existent in the United States because of vaccinations.
The erroneous fears that vaccinations somehow correlated with autism spiked the rate of those opting against childhood immunizations and, combined with global travel of those from nations where vaccinations are not standard, these outbreaks started to reemerge, she said.
Though some may suggest that measles is a relatively mild ailment, Smith said it can be quite severe in the pediatric population. Statistics indicate that 1 to 2 of 1,000 diagnosed cases proves fatal, a fact that should prompt aggressive attention to assure an outbreak does not occur.
At her office, Smith said she has not seen any "panic," but some parents scheduled for well-baby visits timed to their infants' first birthday are asking to come sooner to get the vaccination process started. Vaccinations cannot be given in the first six months.
For those who may not have a private pediatrician or primary doctor, McAtee said the county's three offices have plenty of vaccine and fees will be waived if lack of insurance or cost is an issue.
"We really want to prevent an outbreak in this community, that's for sure,' Smith concluded.