Measles coming to Alaska isn’t a far-fetched idea, health care professionals said.
That’s because this year’s tourist season is expected to be particularly busy. This year there have been more cases of measles in the U.S. than in the past 25 years and there are communities around the world in the midst of measles outbreaks.
“In this day and age of frequent travel and international travel, it’s something that should always be on people’s radar,” said Alison Gaines, Public Health Center nurse manager. “With the amount of travelers expected in a season, it would not at all surprise me if we do see some measles in Alaska.”
Measles is a highly contagious virus that can cause fevers, rashes, hospitalizations and in rare cases deaths. There is cruise ship owned by the Church of Scientology that was recently quarantined near the Caribbean island St. Lucia because of a confirmed case of the measles. Last year, measles was found on an Alaska cruise ship, and in the past ships have been hotbeds of norovirus activity.
There have been 704 cases of measles so far this year, Gaines said, and those cases have been spread across 22 states, including Washington, California and Oregon.
In 2019, 1.31 million cruise ship passengers are expected to Alaska, according to Cruise Lines International Association Alaska.
Measles symptoms include fever followed by a rash, red and watery eyes, and recent travelers are encouraged to be extra wary of the disease, said Charlee Gribbon, infection preventionist for Bartlett Regional Hospital.
Measles is highly contagious and spread through the air, said Gribbon and Gaines.
“Measles can last in the air for up to two hours after a person with measles is in the room,” Gaines said.
It can also have a severe impact on people who do catch it.
“It can be quite dangerous actually, particularly to infants, kids and people who are immunocompromised,” Gaines said.
About a quarter of people with measles require hospitalization, Gaines said, and one or two of every thousand measles cases are fatal.
There are a few of things people can do to help prevent the spread of measles.
One, Gaines said, is washing hands regularly, which is helpful for preventing the spread of most diseases.
The other is getting vaccinated.
“The best way to prevent yourself from getting measles is of course getting vaccinated,” Gaines said. “Most of the cases of measles are occurring in unvaccinated people.”
Measles, along with mumps and rubella, is one of the illnesses covered by the MMR vaccine, which is administered in two doses.
The first dose is recommended for children between 1 year and 15 months of age, Gaines said, and the second dose is recommended for children between 4 and 6.
“Ninety-eight percent of the population is immune after they have those two doses, and it’s lifelong,” Gribbon said.
However, Gaines said youths and adults who are not vaccinated could also get the vaccine, which is available to most people over the age of 6 months.
Gribbon said the vaccine typically isn’t costly for people with health insurance, and there are subsidized options supported by the Alaska Vaccine Distribution Program. State of Alaska Public Health Nursing offers all routine childhood vaccines for children between 2 months and 18 years of age.
Gaines said there is a $27.44 administration fee for the MMR, and fees will be assessed on a sliding scale based on family income and size. No one is refused because of inability to pay, she said.
Gribbon and Gaines said anyone who is uncertain if they’ve been vaccinated should contact their health care provider to find out.
Odds are good most people have had the vaccine, Gaines said since abut 89 percent of kindergarten-age children in the state have had a dose of the MMR vaccine.
“That’s a little below national average, but still pretty good,” Gaines said.
For those who plan to travel, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vessel Sanitation Program offers tips for healthy cruising, outbreak updates and sanitation inspection results.
CDC’s tips for healthy cruising advise reporting illness to the ship’s medical facility, which is advice that Gaines also shared.
“If someone thinks they may have the measles, it’s very important to call their health care provider ahead of arrival so that their provider can make arrangements to decrease potential exposure to other people who are in the clinic — for example, they will not want you to wait in the waiting room with others — because measles is so contagious,” Gaines said.
• Contact arts and culture reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.