Washington Declares Public Health Emergency Amid Measles Outbreak

Experts encourage immunization as the measles outbreak in Washington State continues.

Experts encourage immunization as the measles outbreak in Washington State continues.

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State declared a statewide public health emergency on January 25 as a measles outbreak prevails. The disease has primarily affected children under the age of 18. As a result, the State Health Department urged citizens to ensure that their immunization records are up-to-date.

A report issued by the Public Health Department indicated that 34 of those infected were not immunized against the highly contagious and sometimes fatal virus. In Washington’s Clark County, the immunization rate has been reported as only 76.5 percent among kindergarten students. Clark County has confirmed 49 measles cases so far.

The county is far from the worst in Washington. In San Juan County, for instance, no more than 47 percent of children attending kindergarten are vaccinated. Experts believe that the low vaccination rate is responsible for the continued outbreak.

Governor Inslee stressed that the outbreak is “an extreme public health risk that may quickly spread.” Following Insee’s declaration, officials can now request medical resources from other states. The State Emergency Operations Center and Washington State Military Department will collaborate closely with the Department of Health to implement preventive measures.

Fueled by the belief that vaccines cause autism, an anti-vaccine movement has been growing in Portland, Houston, and Seattle. An analysis published by PLOS Medicine reports that 18 states—including Washington—now allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their children for non-medical reasons.

“These outbreaks are due to the anti-vaccine movement,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.  

In 2001, a draft model of legislation known as Model State Emergency Health Powers Act (MSEHPA) was released. Adopting several or all of its provisions, states have implemented their own specific policies for health emergencies. In Washington, a state of emergency allows health officials to isolate patients and authorize aid from other states.

Health officials and researchers remain concerned that public emergencies are not enough to increase vaccination rates. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announced that the virus was eliminated from the country in 2000, but a surge in anti-vaccination sentiments is believed to have caused the disease’s reappearance.

“We in public health are reacting to a very real threat: if we allow measles to spread unabated through a community that lacks herd immunity, we’re going to have deaths,” stressed public health law professor James Hodge. The source  of the outbreak in Washington has not yet been identified by officials.