San Francisco Department of Public Health Contained Measles Outbreak, Possibly Saving Lives

Categories: Health

Without a measles vaccine, your children's lives may be in danger.
Just weeks ago, a San Francisco man who had traveled abroad brought back a deadly souvenir. He had spent some time in Europe with a friend who had been diagnosed with measles, and several days after he returned to the city, he began showing symptoms. If you don't remember much about the measles, since it was all but eradicated long ago in the United States, here's a little reminder: It's a highly contagious airborn virus that can kill children.

In some developing countries, it kills hundreds of thousands of children every year. In some developed countries where people have increasingly rebelled against recommended vaccinations -- namely Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Romania -- the airborn virus has seen a devastating resurgence. Seven children from those countries died from the measles in 2006 and 2007, and in 2008 that number was likely higher, according to Andrew Resignato, the director of the San Francisco Immunization Coalition.   

Days after he returned from Europe, the San Francisco man had a fever, a cough, and red eyes -- all measles symptoms. He alerted his doctor, who immediately called the San Francisco Department of Public Health. They tested the man, and after 16 hours of waiting, his results came back positive.

Last year in San Diego, a measles outbreak in a hospital infected 12 people, mostly children. With this disaster in mind, San Francisco's Communicable Disease & Prevention (CDCP) immediately activated an Infectious Disease Emergency Response. The response involved 122 staff members who identified and and contacted 73 exposed people. It turned out, the infected man had been in contact with quite a few people who weren't immunized. Two of his own children were not immunized.  

Both children tested positive for measles, and were quarantined along with about 20 others who had been exposed and couldn't prove they had been vaccinated. Some had to be quarantined for two weeks, according to Dr. Susan Fernyak, the director of CDCP. Fernyak was nervous about the number of people who had been exposed, because a very low percentage of them had been vaccinated. So when the outbreak ended with a grand total of three cases, she was extremely relieved. 

"It was sort of a miracle," she said.

The man who brought measles back claimed he received two vaccinations, said Fernyak, which should have rendered him immune. But the man couldn't produce any proof that he was vaccinated. He offered his situation as proof that vaccinations didn't work anyway, she said.  

Movements against vaccination have continuously sprung up, says Resignato, for a variety of reasons. Beliefs that vaccinations cause autism have scared some. (Three federal judges recently rejected that link). Distrust of the government and western medicine have compelled others to avoid the needle. The fact is, the average person doesn't understand disease or vaccinations or even basic tenets of science, says Resignato, so when a celebrity couple like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey says that autism is vaccination-related, that can be pretty persuasive.   

"We're seeing a lot more of diseases that had been eliminated by vaccines," he said. "They're coming back because a small percentage of people aren't immunizing."

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