At last, the measles outbreak is over

Signs at the entry to Children's Minneapolis's primary care clinic.
Minnesota health officials on Friday declared Minnesota's measles outbreak over, finally, and celebrate that all patients survived.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News file

With no measles cases in 42 days, state officials on Friday declared the outbreak over after the highly contagious virus sickened 79 Minnesotans this year.

The vast majority of cases were in unvaccinated Somali-American children living in Hennepin County. The first infections occurred in March, were discovered in early April and spread to become the state's worst measles outbreak since 1990 when three children died of the disease.

"We were able to really slow this outbreak down and stop it in ways that we didn't have the capacity to do back in 1990," said Kris Ehresmann, head of the Minnesota Health Department's Infectious Disease Division.

More than 8,000 people were exposed to the disease, she said. Only about 1 percent came down with the measles.

Ehresmann said that speaks to the success of a massive public health containment effort. The effort to work with schools, daycare providers, community and religious leaders saved lives, she said.

"We were able to exclude people who were at -risk from high-risk settings," Ehresmann said. "That really allowed us to reduce transmission and to quell the outbreak in a much more efficient manner."

Ehresmann and many others say this year's outbreak underscores the importance of immunization. It prompted a dramatic increase in parents bringing their kids in for shots.

At one point, she said, vaccinations were running about 17 times their usual pace. Even now, vaccination appointments are above normal, Ehresmann said, but nowhere near their peak.

To keep the momentum going the Department of Health exhibit at the State Fair is all about encouraging immunization. A small, unscientific sampling of State Fair-goers found strong support for vaccinations.

"I was a teacher for 35 years and I still sub, so I know how important it is to have that in schools," said Doreen Nystedt, 64, of Woodbury.

Dan Biever, 58, of Minneapolis, said failing to get vaccinated puts other people at risk.

"Well I mean ... other people are going to get sick too, won't they?"

Beverly Torgerson, a 63-year-old from Warren in northwestern Minnesota, wants a change in state law.

Parents can opt out of immunization by simply signing a notarized statement saying they don't want their child to get the shots. Torgerson said it's time to restrict opt-outs to cases where it's medically necessary.

"We know that immunization is not dangerous. We know that it's right for kids," she said. "I have a daughter with an auto-immune disease. If there's an outbreak, she's at a risk as well so it's not just your own individual child, it's the whole community that we have to worry about."

Still, though, immunization opponents who link vaccination with autism and negative outcomes continue to warn against the shots based on debunked science.

A few miles south of the fairgrounds, a bus that travels the nation collecting stories about vaccination problems rolled into a south Minneapolis park Friday, where a small group off vaccine opponents was gathered.

"It's going to be a big battle," said Wayne Rhode of Maplewood, one of the anti-vaxxers.

Rohde believes the measles vaccine contributed to serious health problems for his son almost two decades ago. He and others are gearing up to defend the status quo.

"We shouldn't let the state decide what's best, because that's a cookie cutter approach and they don't take into account what the parents believe," Rohde said.

Patsy Stinchfield bristles at comments like that. She oversaw the measles response at Children's Minnesota's Minneapolis hospital. All 22 of the kids hospitalized with severe cases of measles were treated there.

"The amount of damage done by the misinformation is really significant," Stinchfield said.

The Minnesota Department said its measles response cost $900,000. Stinchfield said care provided at Children's cost about $1.3 million.

She plans to be a vocal supporter of changing Minnesota law to abolish immunization exemptions for anything but medical reasons.

"There' have been just immeasurable amounts of pain and suffering from children, lost work from parents."

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