Measles hasn’t hit Utah yet, but health officials warn it’s only a matter of time

(Associated Press File Photo | Seth Wenig ) Signs about measles and the measles vaccine are displayed at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y., in March 2019. Measles continues to spread in the United States, with more 704 cases reported so far this year spread among 22 states.

The national measles outbreak hasn’t affected Utah yet, but it almost certainly will, health department officials warned Thursday.

“We think we will probably be experiencing it here in Utah soon,” said Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health. “All of us must choose to immunize. Not just to protect our own children, but also, even more importantly, to protect infants and children of others — our friends and neighbors who are too young to be immunized, or have lost their immunity due to other diseases.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, from Jan. 1 to April 26 this year, 704 cases of measles have been confirmed in 22 states. That’s the most cases reported in the United States since 1994.

“We’re thinking we may not escape that bullet,” said Allyn Nakashima, program manager at the state health department, because of outbreaks in “surrounding states.”

Measles has been reported in three states that border Utah — Nevada, Arizona and Colorado.

A recent outbreak of mumps in central Utah “signals that we are susceptible to outbreaks of this kind, including measles, because it’s the same vaccine,” Nakashima said.

Children in Sanpete County who haven’t been fully immunized with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine have been barred from attending school after two confirmed and other “probable cases” of mumps.

Thirteen cases of mumps have been identified this year statewide.

State health officials and representatives from University of Utah Health and Intermountain Health appeared together at a news conference on Thursday, pleading with Utahns to get their children immunized — and for adults to verify their own immunization status.

“We have many vaccines that are safe and effective,” Miner said. “In fact, they're so effective that too many of us are inexperienced with the diseases and ignorant of the seriousness of them.”

Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious disease at University of Utah Health, said he’s often asked, “What’s the big deal?" about measles because it’s just “a childhood disease.”

But while many American doctors have never seen a case — it was considered eradicated from the United States in 2000 — “I’ve not only seen measles, I’ve seen a number of children die of measles when I worked in Africa," Pavia said. "It’s a big deal.”

No U.S. deaths have been reported this year, but at least 66 people have been hospitalized.

Some parents are refusing to get their children immunized “for a variety of reasons,” Nakashima said. “These are good parents ... but I think maybe it has somewhat to do with social media and the way people get their information. It may not be completely scientific. But we have to reverse that trend.”

Officials suggested Utahns work with their health care providers, local health departments or pharmacies to arrange for vaccinations.

In 2011, 15 Utahns were infected with measles after a Holladay family’s un-immunized children contracted the disease in Poland after the family traveled there to retrieve a Latter-day Saint missionary. In addition to those who came down with measles, another 12,000 people were exposed and four public schools were placed on quarantine. Costs to monitor and contain the disease exceeded $130,000.

“It is very, very expensive to control. Very difficult to control," Nakashima said. “So, again, we’re encouraging parents to get their kids vaccinated.”