Health officials promote higher rates of childhood vaccination to prevent measles spread

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GRAND FORKS -- In North Dakota, the rate of measles vaccination in infants is higher than the national average, but lower than the desirable level in children entering kindergarten, said an official with the state health department.

Measles cases, and some outbreaks, have been reported in 10 other states, and the illness could spread to North Dakota if, for example, a traveler becomes infected elsewhere and spreads the illness to unvaccinated people here, said Molly Howell, immunization program manager in the department’s Division of Disease Control.

“It’s only a plane ride away,” Howell said.

“Europe is experiencing a large number of cases; there’s an outbreak in Washington; Texas has had a number of cases now; New York is having an outbreak,” she said. “It would just take one (infected person) to come to North Dakota.”

The last case of measles in North Dakota was an adult living in Cass County in 2011, Howell said.

Public health officials recommend all children be vaccinated against measles at ages 12 to 15 months and 4 to 6 years. Measles is included in a combination vaccine with mumps and rubella, called the MMR vaccine.

In North Dakota, the MMR vaccination rate of infants is 95.7 percent, above the national average of 91.1 percent. But the state’s rate for MMR vaccination of children entering kindergarten for the 2018-19 school year was 93.83 percent, short of the state’s goal of at least 95 percent.

“Measles is so contagious; that’s the goal you need to prevent the spread of measles,” Howell said. “It’s the rate you need to reach what we call ‘herd immunity.’ ”

The department conducts informational initiatives to alert parents to the need for and reasons behind childhood vaccinations, and works closely with schools and health care providers to encourage vaccination, she said.

Emergency response

The North Dakota Department of Health has sent a five-member team of volunteers to Washington state in response to a measles outbreak there.

The response team is composed of one member from Fargo, one from Jamestown and three from Bismarck. They are working in logistics, operations and planning to relieve members of the Washington state response team who are dealing with an escalating measles outbreak in Vancouver, Wash., said Tim Wiedrich, section chief of the Emergency Preparedness and Response unit of the state health department.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency Jan. 25 because of the outbreak. Since Jan. 1, health officials there have 53 confirmed cases and two suspect cases, Howell said.

Of the 53 confirmed cases, 47 were unvaccinated; in five cases, vaccinations were unverified; and in one case, the person has had one dose of the MMR vaccine -- it is recommended that people have two doses.

Washington requested the specialized team through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, which permits a disaster-impacted state to request and receive assistance from other member states quickly and efficiently, Wiedrich said.