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Washington could see more measles cases as outbreak expands

The doctor overseeing the Washington measles response answered questions about how long the outbreak could last, and why some patients aren't cooperating.

As of Tuesday, the measles outbreak in Washington has sickened 63 people since January. Sixty-two cases are in Clark County in southwest Washington, while King County has had one case.

Dr. Scott Lindquist, the Washington Department of Health epidemiologist for communicable diseases, is overseeing the state’s measles response. 

RELATED: Seattle named one of the top 'anti-vaccine hotspots' in the US

KING 5 reporter Ted Land spoke with Dr. Lindquist about how much longer this outbreak could go on, and some of the barriers health officials are running into as they try to stop the outbreak.

Question: Why are we still seeing more cases each week?

Dr. Lindquist: “We are now on what is termed the fourth wave (of cases). I would’ve hoped that before this (past) weekend that we would’ve been seeing the tailing off of this, but with these cases over the weekend, it's really hard to predict now because it looks like we’ll have at least another wave or two after this.

Four days before you even get the rash, you’re infectious, and that’s the concern, that you don’t even know you have measles and you’ve been in a public place and exposing people.”

Question: Why haven’t measles cases spread beyond Clark and King counties?

Dr. Lindquist: “I think Clark County has done a really good job of identifying the cases and the people that were exposed and saying you need to be in isolation or quarantine, and a lot of those folks have taken that to heart and haven't traveled and exposed other people around the state.”

Question: Are some people who have not gotten vaccinated having second thoughts?

Dr. Lindquist: “Our (measles) vaccine uptick has been pretty substantial in the last couple weeks. People who had previously not been immunized are now turning to the vaccine.”

Question: Are measles patients cooperating with health department investigators who are trying to stop the outbreak?

Dr. Lindquist: “To be honest, some of these patients are not cooperative, they’re refusing to give sites of where they may have been. That is the human nature side of doing an outbreak investigation. 

Some people feel very strongly they don't want to answer questions to investigators in an outbreak. It’s not the majority. Most people want to do the right thing and limit spread to others.”

Question: When do you think this outbreak could end?

Dr. Lindquist: “Depending on how aggressively we can identify cases, isolate them, quarantine them, and vaccinate, this could end pretty quickly. I think we’re seeing some effect of these interventions, the isolation, and quarantine, but there’s currently a very large outbreak in New York that has been going on for months. (The WA outbreak) could last months. Hopefully, if we can contain it, it won’t.”

Question: Do you worry that an ongoing outbreak, simmering indefinitely, is part of the new reality of public health? That this is something we will have to adapt to?

Dr. Lindquist: “No. We have the tools to control disease like measles, clearly, with isolation and quarantine and vaccination. We should have the tools and the ability to stop an outbreak like this.”

“I went back to the 1920s, and I looked at all our data, all the way up to 2019, and we used to have a huge amount of measles, thousands (of cases), like into the 20,000s per year, and in 1968 this absolutely precipitously dropped as the vaccine came out. So there’s no question that the vaccine is the centerpiece for controlling measles.”

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