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‘Pissed off and angry’: Arizona grapples with measles outbreak

Health officials monitor up to 1,000 people in Phoenix after a woman infected with measles visits children’s hospital

Up to 1,000 people, including almost 200 children, may have been exposed to measles after a woman — who caught the disease from a family that traveled to California's Disneyland amusement park where an outbreak originated last month — walked into a Phoenix children’s hospital.

The Arizona woman, whose case was confirmed Tuesday in Maricopa County, came into contact with a Pinal County family that traveled to Disneyland, but did not have telltale signs of measles when she visited Phoenix Children's East Valley Center last week. There are currently seven confirmed cases of measles in Arizona.

“Unfortunately, she came down with the disease and by the time it was recognized had already exposed a large number of children at the facility,” said Maricopa County health director Bob England.

Those who haven't been vaccinated are being asked to stay home for 21 days, a standard health practice, or wear masks if they have to go out in public. Health officials will check in with the families of at-risk children following the incubation period, which ends Feb. 11-12.

Most parents understand the importance of keeping their children home, England said.

Local father Tim Jacks was livid when he received a call from the hospital shortly after taking his three-year-old daughter Maggie there for lab work after her last chemotherapy session, local news website CBS 5 reported.

"There's the father in me that's just pissed off and angry and wanting to protect my family," Jacks said. It was not possible to have Maggie vaccinated because of her battle with leukemia, and her weak immune system puts her at risk to many diseases. Jack's 10-month-old son, who was too young to be vaccinated, was also possibly exposed to measles at the hospital. Jacks said both of his children would be kept at home for the next three weeks.

"The last thing I want to do as a father and as a pediatrician is to spread something like this to anyone else," Jacks told CBS 5.

Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of the people close to that person who are not vaccinated will also become infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

State Health Services director Will Humble said it’s possible but unlikely that the number of cases in Arizona will be contained at seven.

“To stay in your house for 21 days is hard,” he said. “But we need people to follow those recommendations, because all it takes is a quick trip to the Costco before you’re ill and, ‘bam,’ you’ve just exposed a few hundred people. We’re at a real critical juncture with the outbreak.”

Health officials don’t yet know how many of the children at the hospital were vaccinated or their age ranges. Children under a year old cannot receive the vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella but can get an immunity booster. While the measles vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective in stemming the spread of the disease, it does lower the likelihood of transmission.

Health officials were working to notify the families of children who visited the Phoenix Children’s East Valley Center from Jan. 20-21.

Phoenix Children’s spokeswoman Debra Stevens on Wednesday urged anyone who suspects they have measles to call ahead so that staff could take the necessary precautions to help keep measles from spreading, including bringing masks to incoming patients.

“If someone has chosen not to vaccinate their children or for some reason cannot vaccinate their children, they face a higher responsibility now to let their health care provider know in advance,” she said.

Arizona is second to California in the number of cases traced to visits to Disneyland last month. Measles has been confirmed in five other states — Utah, Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Nebraska — and Mexico. Most of those infected were not vaccinated, and health officials have urged people to get the measles shot.

The Disneyland outbreak now stands at 95 cases. Measles — the world’s greatest vaccine-preventable killer of children — is having a mighty comeback across the U.S., and public health experts argue that a growing anti-vaccine movement is responsible.

In the late 1950s, measles infected more than half a million Americans a year and killed roughly 450. But since 2000, when the infectious disease was considered eliminated, measles cases have hovered around 60 per year

In 2013, that number rose to 189, with the majority of cases found among unvaccinated people. In just the first four and a half months of 2014, there were 644 cases across 27 states. 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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