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Growing measles outbreak raises concerns in Oklahoma

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In this March 27, 2019, file photo, a woman receives a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that U.S. measles cases have surged this year, and at this pace will set a record for most illnesses in 25 years. [AP photo]
In this March 27, 2019, file photo, a woman receives a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that U.S. measles cases have surged this year, and at this pace will set a record for most illnesses in 25 years. [AP photo]

State health officials are concerned about the current outbreak of measles in the United States, which spread to four new states the first week of April.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 465 cases of measles have been confirmed in 19 states so far this year, the second-highest number of cases for the first quarter since the disease was eliminated in 2000.

No cases have been reported yet in Oklahoma. Measles is so contagious that even a single case would trigger an investigation, officials said.

"We need to tighten the rules now before we have an outbreak," Charles Skillings, CEO of St. Anthony Shawnee Hospital, said during last week's meeting of the State Board of Health.

The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) shot is among the vaccines Oklahoma law requires for a child to enroll in school. The law provides exemptions for medical and personal reasons.

Pediatricians would like to see the personal exemptions removed, but it's a tough sell politically, said Board Member Edward Legako, a pediatrician from Lawton.

Interim Health Commissioner Tom Bates said he doesn't see that happening anytime soon.

"Personal exemptions have gotten too easy to obtain," Bates said. "We need to tighten them up."

The latest CDC Kindergarten Survey shows the immunization exemption rate for Oklahoma for any reason is 2.2 percent, which is equal to the national median rate, health department spokesman Tony Sellars said. He said 1.8 percent were nonmedical exemptions.

A total of 1,182 children enrolled in kindergarten in 2017-18 had an exemption from one or more vaccines. Dewey County had the highest overall exemption rate at 4.7 percent, and 18 counties had no exemptions, Sellars said.

The survey shows 91 percent of public school kindergartners and 84 percent of private school kindergartners were found to be fully vaccinated. MMR vaccine coverage had the lowest rates.

Measles is often introduced in the U.S. by travelers who get the disease abroad, according to the CDC. That was the case for all three cases in Oklahoma that occurred since 2015, Sellars said.

One of the main reasons parents hesitate or refuse to have their children immunized is an anti-vaccination movement that has spread misinformation, officials said.

"As the Health Department, we need to be very vocal and forthright in our support of vaccinations," Bates said. "We have to be the voice of science to expel myths."

More about measles

• Measles is a serious respiratory disease that causes a rash and fever. It is very contagious. In rare cases, it can be deadly.

• Measles spreads when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes. You can catch measles just by being in a room where a person with measles has been, up to 2 hours after that person is gone. Almost everyone who has not had the MMR shot will get measles if they are exposed to the virus.

• The best protection against measles is to get the measles-mumps-rubella shot. Doctors recommend that all children get the MMR shot.

• Scientists in the United States and other countries say there is no link between autism and the MMR shot.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

K.S. McNutt

Kathryn McNutt covers higher education for The Oklahoman and NewsOK. Since joining the staff in August 2000, she also has worked as the Breaking News editor, Metro editor and assistant Local editor. A native of Oklahoma City, she graduated from... Read more ›

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