Public health officials across Colorado have been on high alert for weeks. They’re watching nervously to see if the one case of measles confirmed in Denver on Jan. 15 will lead to an outbreak.
It’s no small concern. Thanks to state laws that allow parents to opt-out of immunizations — well, just because — it’s 1955 all over again in many communities across Colorado.
Before the vaccine became available in the 1960s, 3 million to 4 million people were infected with measles annually in the U.S. and 400 to 500 died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 48,000 were hospitalized and 1,000 suffered encephalitis.
Colorado ranks 50th nationwide — dead last — in the rate of kindergarteners that have been fully immunized, said Stephanie Wasserman, executive director of the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition.
While the legislature has done little to address this travesty, at least it passed a law in 2014 that requires schools to report vaccination rates. The resulting data are illuminating — especially if you’re the parent of a child who is especially vulnerable and can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons.
The state’s charter schools have among the lowest of the low vaccination rates, according to the State of the State’s Immunizations, a report that assembled data from the 2016-17 school year.
Crestone Charter School in the Moffat 2 School District reported a scandalous vaccination rate of 29.48 percent.
In the anti-vaxxer hotspot of Boulder, a mere 41.60 percent of students at Gold Hill Elementary School were fully vaccinated.
In Clark County, Wash., with a vaccination rate of only 78 percent, at least 36 people have recently contracted measles and are at risk for encephalitis, pneumonia and other potentially fatal complications.
In New York, more than 120 cases of measles have been reported in the current outbreak.
And remember, the disease is entirely preventable.
In the era before the anti-vaxxer movement, measles was considered eradicated in the U.S. In 2000, when vaccination rates of 90 to 95 percent were common and “herd immunity” had been achieved, there were no reported cases.
That was the era before social media. It was before calculated misinformation had been weaponized.
Now even Russian bots have been mobilized to spread lies about vaccination risks, apparently in an effort to divide Americans, undermine trust in the public health system and the government in general, and sow chaos and fear.
So, while people in Africa and Asia walk miles to access the life-saving vaccines, many Americans refuse to immunize their children even when the vaccines are convenient and free.
Then, as measles outbreaks multiply, leaders in the anti-vaxxer movement tell their followers that they should avoid hanging around with other unvaccinated folks to reduce their risk of illness and “hide in the herd” among the safely vaccinated.
How cynical is that?
Still, while it’s an interesting debate about the larger issue of vaccination rates and state laws, the more important concern right now is our level of risk.
The adult in Denver who apparently contracted measles abroad circulated widely in the city visiting a spa, a supermarket, an urgent care clinic and a hospital before he was diagnosed.
Wasserman said dozens of people were exposed to the latest case since the measles virus can live for two hours in a room where an infected person has been. For infants under one year, people undergoing chemotherapy and those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, the danger is real.
At the same time, a lot of medical professionals have had to reacquaint themselves with the signs of measles as this blast from the past reemerges.
The early symptoms are fever, runny nose, red eyes, coughing — all similar to those of colds and flu — so unless there’s good reason to suspect measles, cases often are misdiagnosed before the telltale rash develops.
This gives the virus plenty of time to spread and for its complications to advance.
Those complications are not only life-threatening, they’re very expensive.
“This is the thing that makes legislators stand up and listen,” Wasserman said. “They are very responsive to costs.”
She said in 2017, hospital and emergency department costs for children with vaccine-preventable diseases in Colorado were $55 million. That figure does not include office visits, medications or lost wages for parents who had to stay home from work to care for sick kids.
That year, 558 children were hospitalized and three died from these preventable illnesses.
“Measles is one of the most contagious viruses on the planet,” Wasserman said.
We used to have a social contract when it came to vaccines, she added. Our responsible behavior eliminated small pox and ended the scourge of crippling polio outbreaks.
It almost eradicated measles.
Then, it all just fell apart.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant. @dccarman