MOUNT VERNON – The Knox County Health Department is urging local residents to make sure they’re vaccinated for measles, given a recent national outbreak that has spread to four neighboring states.
Public information officer Pam Palm told the health board Wednesday that the Knox County Health Department has been working with other central Ohio health departments to develop an outreach plan. This will include a public advisory, issued to all local healthcare providers, as well as educational outreach targeted towards Knox County’s Amish population (which tends to travel more and receive fewer vaccinations, Palm said).
“The main thing is it’s just educating people,” said Palm, adding that immunization from measles means two doses of the MMR vaccine.
“We’ve had a couple scares where we did think that somebody had measles and it turned out to be something else, which is good because that can be pretty detrimental. Right now, we’re lucky. But the feeling is, with all these states around us, that at some point it is going to come across [the state line].”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. has seen a rise in measles cases this year; as of Wednesday, 971 cases had already been reported, marking the nation’s highest total since 1992 – with seven months remaining.
After the measles vaccine became available in the 1960s, the disease quickly faded from relevancy in the U.S. Health officials declared the disease eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, the Associated Press reported, meaning all new cases would have to come from outside the country, as the disease was no longer considered active on American soil.
That’s changed in the past decade, however. Palm told Knox Pages 22 states have reported measles outbreaks so far this year, including four of Ohio’s neighbors: Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky. The CDC has attributed this rise mainly to international travelers bringing the disease back to the U.S. and infecting unvaccinated people. Misinformation regarding the safety and effects of vaccination has also played a role, health officials say.
While Ohio has yet to have a measles outbreak this year, medical officials believe the disease could spread quickly if it were to reach the Buckeye State, due to Ohio’s low youth vaccination rates.
According to state vaccination statistics obtained by Knox Pages, 5.3 percent of Ohio kindergartners in the 2017-18 school year enrolled without complete vaccinations, and without a vaccination exemption – meaning a religious, medical or philosophical excuse as to why a vaccination could not be issued. Of the 27 states that reported such data, Ohio’s percentage was the second-highest in the United States, the AP found. Only Arkansas had a higher percentage of incomplete vaccinations.
Data also shows that Knox County has had a particularly high rate of incomplete student vaccinations. In the 2018-19 school year, 53 percent of Knox County 12th-graders submitted an incomplete vaccination record, or no record at all. According to Palm, this was the second-highest percentage in the state, behind Holmes County.
While Palm said the Health Department is still looking into the reason behind Knox County’s lagging vaccination rates, she’s heard through school nurses that families tend to prioritize vaccinations less as children grow older (this trend is mirrored statewide, according to Ohio Department of Health Data).
School nurses have also suggested that some area families might be opposed to the concept of vaccination, potentially due to religious or philosophical beliefs.
Regardless, Palm said the Knox County Health Department will look to increase education and promote measles vaccinations to try to keep the disease from cropping up here. The Health Department certainly wants to prevent what happened in 2014, when Ohio’s last measles outbreak started in Knox County.
The outbreak occurred after three local Amish men returned from a mission trip in the Philippines, Palm recalled. While they had received tetanus shots before going, as they knew they’d be working with wood and nails, they were not aware of the measles outbreak in the Philippines at the time and therefore did not receive the MMR shot.
After the trio returned to Knox County, bringing measles with them, the disease spread through the Amish community like wildfire. The Health Department confirmed over 200 cases of measles that year, she said, and administered more than 1,200 immunizations.
“Five years ago, we were dealing with it big-time here,” Palm said. “It was a huge effort.”
Symptoms of measles include muscle pain, fever, skin rash and sensitivity to light, among others. According to the CDC, about 1 in 4 people in the U.S. who get measles will be hospitalized.
The disease is extremely communicable, Palm added; someone with measles can cough, leave the room, and another person can walk in an hour later and catch the disease. According to the CDC, if one person has measles, up to 9 out of 10 people around him or her will also become infected if they are not vaccinated.
“It’s very airborne,” Palm noted.
To prevent another local outbreak, Palm recommends that people make sure to receive two doses of MMR (the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella) before traveling out-of-state. Otherwise, Palm said, residents are putting themselves and their neighbors at risk.
“If you don’t have that vaccination, there’s a good chance that you could get measles by being in those communities,” she said.