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Colorado Measles Cases Have Health Officials On High Alert

A representation of a measles virus particle.

Three children are being treated at a Denver-area hospital for measles, adding to the more than 1,200 cases of the disease reported this year nationwide. Some Mountain West states havealready seen measles cases this year, including Colorado, Idaho, and Nevada.

Measles isvery contagious, so when a case is identified, it kicks local health officials into high gear, rapidly searching for anyone the patients may have come into contact with. 

“It's not glamorous, that's for sure,” said Rachel Herlihy, Colorado’s state communicable disease epidemiologist. “It is a lot of phone calls and tracking down where people have been, talking to businesses.” And locating medical records to confirm whether an exposed person is already immune to the illness.

According to apress release from the Tri-County Health Department, the three patients had not been vaccinated against measles. They picked up the disease while traveling abroad, then passed through the Denver airport last week for a visit to Colorado.

Bernadette Albanese, a Tri-County medical epidemiologist, said they’re focusing on two places people may have been exposed: the hospital and the airport.

“From the Children’s Hospital emergency department exposure on December 12 we have approximately 80 families, or 80 households, we are working through,” she said.

The state health department says it alerted medical providers Monday about the cases so they can keep an eye out for symptoms in other patients. It can take between one and three weeks before symptoms appear, so Albanese said if people were exposed at the airport, they could begin to show symptoms tomorrow.

“And the most common amount of time between an exposure and symptoms is about two weeks, so it's still a little too early to tell whether or not we're going to have secondary cases coming from this,” said Albanese.

Infected individualscan spread the illness for about an eight-day window, starting from four days before the telltale rash appears, and concluding four days after.

Rachel Herlihy said the illness requires an especially quick response.

“For measles in particular, we really have about 72 hours to give someone who is not immune to measles a dose of the MMR vaccine to try and prevent or at least minimize the severity of a case of measles that would then develop in that individual,” she said.

That window has now elapsed. There are other treatments available to lessen the severity of the disease,like immunoglobulin, for people who are at high risk of severe outcomes, like pregnant women, babies and people will severely compromised immune systems. Albanese said her health department is recommending immunoglobulin for several patients exposed in the emergency department. Others don’t require any intervention.

“Someone who has been previously vaccinated doesn't need anything,” she said. “That's the beauty of vaccination. Vaccination protects you when these unexpected, unknown or anticipated exposures occur.”

In the past, the local health departmentestimated it cost them about $70,000 to successfully contain just two cases of measles in the Denver area. Public health officials in Arizona spent an estimated $123,000 in personnel costs alone responding to two measles cases. A In 2013, a teenager with measles. In another instance, a single pediatric case of measles cost a clinic about $6,000, as researchers wrote, “despite isolating the patient promptly after examination.”

Earlier this week, legislatorshosted a summit at the state capitol featuring speakers who are vaccine-hesitant.  

Colorado, Utah and Idaho areamong 15 states that allow parents to forego their children’s vaccines for personal reasons, in addition to medical and religious ones. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, several states in the Mountain West have some of the worst measlesvaccination rates in the country when it comes to children under the age of three. That includes Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Rae Ellen Bichell was a reporter for KUNC and the Mountain West News Bureau from 2018 to 2020.
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