The St. Louis area has largely avoided measles for more than a decade, but a recent outbreak in other states has spurred renewed calls to vaccinate children and prompted hospitals to remind its doctors what the disease looks like.
Dr. Howard Schlansky, medical director of pediatrics at Mercy Clinic, is sending an internal memo to give colleagues a refresher on measles signs and symptoms.
“I would guess that most of our doctors have never seen a measles case,” Schlansky said Tuesday.
St. Anthony’s Medical Center in south St. Louis County recently sent out a similar reminder.
More than 100 people in 14 states have been sickened by measles this year, mostly from an outbreak traced to Disneyland in California, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
No cases have been reported this year in Missouri and the lone Illinois case was in the Chicago area, according to state health departments.
Measles is spread through the air and is highly contagious. Symptoms include a fever, cough, runny nose and a rash. In rare cases, especially among babies, it can be fatal. Last year, the U.S. saw a record 644 measles infections in 27 states after virtually eliminating the disease in 2000.
Doctors say they fight perceptions created by widely discredited research that vaccines are dangerous, and are being even more vocal about the need to vaccinate in light of the recent outbreak.
“Vaccines are safe,” said Dr. Rachel Orscheln, an infectious disease specialist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and associate professor of pediatrics at Washington University. “They’re effective at preventing diseases that cause suffering, disability and even death.”
The last big measles outbreak in Missouri and Illinois was in 1994. More than 200 people came down with the measles, the majority of them unvaccinated Christian Scientists who attended the Principia School in Town and Country or Principia College in Elsah. Most Christian Scientists rely on prayer exclusively to stay healthy and get better when they are sick, but the church does not mandate that choice.
The epidemic led St. Louis County health officials to require schoolchildren to receive a second measles booster shot. On Tuesday, the county health department said it is strongly urging everyone to stay current with all recommended vaccinations in light of the recent measles outbreaks around the nation.
In 1985, three Christian Scientists affiliated with Principia College died, and 712 students were quarantined on campus when an outbreak of measles sickened more than 100 people.
A measles outbreak four years later at the college sickened nearly 100 people, including some off campus, not affiliated with the school.
Efforts to reach officials at both schools were not successful.
There has not been a case of measles in St. Louis County since the 1994 outbreak, and the only case in St. Louis in the last 15 years was in 2013, according to the respective health departments.
St. Charles County hasn’t had any cases since it started keeping track in the mid-1990s, and Jefferson County’s last case was in 1993. St. Clair County hasn’t had a case in the last decade, the most recent period for which its records were immediately available.
The debate has made its way into the political arena.
President Barack Obama urged parents to vaccinate their children, and House Speaker John Boehner said all children ought to be vaccinated, but added that he didn’t know “that we need another law.”
Kerry Messer, head of the Missouri Family Network, warned that a forceful government hand on immunization will have the reverse effect on stemming measles and other infectious diseases, and will cause parents already skeptical of government to shy away from getting preventive shots for their kids. Messer’s group advocates for parental control in public policy issues, including home schooling.
Many parents who don’t vaccinate their children choose to remain silent in public and view it as a private health decision. But Jeremy Kobler, a Kansas City chiropractor, has put himself at the front of the anti-vaccine movement by listing his name and business as a resource on the website Vaccination Liberation.
Although patients don’t necessarily seek him out because of his stance, he said he makes a point of sharing his belief that immunizations have dangerous side effects and that people have the legal right to opt out of them.
“They have that right to make a choice and the federal government and no one else can make you vaccinate your children,” he said. “Overall, I’m not for vaccines at all.”
Sandra McKay, a Mercy Kids pediatrician and president of the Missouri chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, works to reassure parents that vaccines are not dangerous.
“The data doesn’t lie,” she said of research proving the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
Some parents worry about the aluminum in the measles vaccine, she said, but 2 ounces of breast milk contain more aluminum than the vaccine dose.
“I would never recommend a treatment that I wouldn’t recommend for my own child,” said McKay. “And I routinely vaccinate my own children.”
Post-Dispatch reporter Nancy Cambria and the Associated Press contributed to this report.