Responding Quickly to Two Measles Outbreaks

By Chris Adams

Measles, a disease that was declared officially eradicated in 2000, still managed to find its way to Washington state in 2019 – twice.

Amid the surge of measles in the United States, Washington was hit in January and then again in May. In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Washington Health Secretary John Wiesman gave a tick-tock of how the outbreaks emerged and what has transpired since.

The first outbreak involved 72 cases and the second 13 (as of the time of his talk in July). Once an outbreak is confirmed, public health authorities sprang into action – and the work involved is substantial. During the course of the first outbreak, public health workers traced the actions and whereabouts of infected people back 21 days; they conducted more than 4,100 interviews, and sent more than 3,300 monitoring letters.

Of the cases, 52 were under 10 years old, and another 14 were under 18; only five were adults.

That led to a contentious debate in the state legislature about the immunization exemption law that allows parents to opt out from getting their children vaccinated. Immunizations for incoming kindergarteners have held steady in the past two decades and now stand at 86%; about 5% of children have exemptions and 8% are out of compliance.

“We had 800 people show up for hearings – and 95% of them were against changing the law,” he said. “The side of not vaccinating has become very organized, very coordinated, and they use tactics that are really intimidating.”

The law eventually passed and was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee. It removes personal and philosophical exemptions to the immunization requirement, although religious and medical exemptions are still allowed.

This program is funded by GlaxoSmithKline LLC. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

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