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Here's what Idaho needs to know right now about measles and what vaccines to get this year

Idaho Health and Welfare has full immunization information at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov
Idaho Health and Welfare, 123rf
Idaho Health and Welfare has full immunization information at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov

Idaho health experts and caregivers have their hands full on any given day, but this fall is already on track to be extra challenging. While the campaign ramps up to get more Idahoans vaccinated against COVID-19, flu and RSV, another complication was added to the mix.

An Idaho traveler recently brought measles back to the Gem State after an overseas trip. That sent health officials on an urgent mission to try to retrace his steps and contacts since returning to Idaho.

“We are watching really closely the local health departments, both in the Boise area and the Nampa area,” said Idaho Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn. “There are 39 countries right now around the world where they have ongoing measles outbreaks. And those include countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East … really around the world. So when people return from those trips or when visitors from those countries arrive in the United States, they can bring the measles with them.”

Dr. Hahn visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about measles, plus the high-profile push to get more Idahoans vaccinated for COVID-19, flu and RSV sooner than later.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. We are due to have a conversation about vaccines. We should know more about this year's flu season. Plus RSV, any increase in the number of cases of Covid. Dr. Christine Horne is here, medical director of the Division of Public Health and Idaho State epidemiologist. Dr. Hahn, welcome back to the program.


PRENTICE: Dr. Hahn, I have a few things to consider with you this morning, but where would you like us to start?

HAHN: Yeah, I'd like to start with measles. We haven't had a chance to talk about. Fortunately, we haven't had a need to talk about measles much in the last few years, so. But now we do. So I'd love to start there.

PRENTICE: I'm old enough to remember when measles actually were, well, nearly rampant. But I also am old enough to remember that we pretty much were able to put this in the bottle with mass vaccinations. So when I hear measles, the hair on the back of my neck goes up because this is really, really contagious. Yes.

HAHN: Yes. Measles is one of those diseases that is known to be highly contagious. You can go into a room after someone has left it and there still can be measles virus hanging in the air. So it really can be contagious in household settings. We know that 90% of unimmune people will get infected in a household if if there's a case of measles there. So it just spreads really quickly and really easily compared to many other infectious diseases.

PRENTICE: So remind us of why it has surfaced again in Idaho. I think I remember it was a man from southwest Idaho who had traveled.

HAHN: Absolutely. Yes. In fact, in the United States now, most of our cases of measles are in people who travel outside the country. There are 39 countries right now around the world where they have ongoing measles outbreaks. And those include countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, really around the world. So when people return from those trips or when visitors from those countries arrive in the United States, they can bring the measles with them. And that's what happened in this case, which is one reason why we do always emphasize, if you're going on a trip, even if it's to Europe or somewhere where you think of as not having a lot of disease, it's good to check in with a travel clinic or a doctor about, Hey, do I need to check in on any of my shots or maybe get boosted before I go?

PRENTICE: So it has been a little bit of time since the release. Have there been any other cases? What have you learned since?

HAHN: Right. Well, we are watching really closely the local health departments, both in the Boise area and the Nampa area, have both been working closely, not only with the gentleman who initially became infected, but his family contacts people who may have been on the same airplane, those kinds of things.

PRENTICE: And again, we're talking about an airborne disease. So tell us about what symptoms might look like or feel like.

HAHN: Yeah, the first thing people usually experience with measles is just feeling under the weather. And then, you know, for maybe for a day or two, even more, and then a fever, that's usually the first thing, you know, especially as adults, we don't get fevers that often. So if you've been exposed to measles and you develop a fever, it's definitely the first thing it should be concerning enough to contact a health care provider about and see if you should be tested. We remind people, don't just show up in emergency department or a doctor's office because of how contagious it is. You'll want to call ahead and let them know. After that fever, the rash. And that's the classic thing that we all think about measles, the red spots, the rash, which usually starts on the face or head and then spreads down the body.

PRENTICE: And again, we're talking most of these cases, usually in kids and then adults over, what, over 30?

HAHN: Yeah. Really, in the in the old days that you were referring to earlier, where it was rampant and pretty much everybody got the measles, it was really often seen in kids just because it was so contagious, it was hard to avoid measles very long once the childhood vaccinations became routine. We do see cases now in adults who have not been vaccinated. So it can really pop up at any age. And it's one reason we're reminding adults, if you're not sure if you've ever been vaccinated against measles, good chance to dust off your immunization records. Take a look. Maybe talk to your health care provider about whether it's important for you to get a dose or not or whether you're maybe up to date.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about flu. What do we know about this year's flu? If I remember right, our flu season peaked pretty early last year.

HAHN: Yeah. So the good news with flu right now is that activity is still low in the United States, but we know it's coming. It comes, you know, every year and in the southern. Atmosphere over our summer. So really from March through June and July, they did have a robust flu season and the vaccine. The good news is that vaccine, which is similar to the one we're using here in the United States, the vaccine worked really well in reducing your risk of ending up in the hospital by 50%. So we're hopeful that this year, as flu season approaches, that our vaccine will be a good one, will be protective and keep keep folks out of the hospital that are, you know, especially vulnerable to severe cases of flu.

PRENTICE: So I got my flu vaccine one week. The RSV the next week. I've heard different narratives about getting immunizations together. Or maybe not together. Yeah. What are the facts on that?

HAHN: Yeah, it's a confusing year. Everybody's you know, I've been reading up on different experts around the country what their recommendations are, what CDC is saying. It's a little bit of a crazy first year where suddenly we have three vaccines. Right? Anyone 60 and older might need to think about or pregnant women. So, of course, flu is the standby. We've had that for years and years and recommended for folks anybody six months and older every year to to protect yourself against flu so that's there and available COVID vaccine of course, now has entered the scene in the last few years and we are seeing an increase in Covid already. So I do recommend people who are pondering their options. Covid is probably the most pressing right now as we start to see cases and hospitalizations already rising. Rsv is the third one. The brand new player on the scene, RSV disease is most people are most familiar with. Little babies can get severe RSV, but also seniors can end up in the hospital and with pneumonia from RSV. And now we have a vaccine for seniors, but again, aren't seeing a lot of RSV activity yet. So I think for people that are contemplating what to do, your options are, one, go ahead and get you know, if you if you're going to get the two Covid and flu, you can get them together. That is considered safe. Some people, though, don't want to have all that on them at once. I would get the Covid vaccine first, wait a week or two and then get your flu vaccine.

PRENTICE: What do you know about the Covid boosters, by the way, as far as accessibility?

HAHN: Yeah. So it is the place to check if you're not sure is vaccines.gov. So Vaccines.gov, I just was looking on that site this morning. It looks really robust right now. We know Walgreens around the state have the new vaccine, CVS pharmacies. There are some other pharmacies and then your doctor's office may well might well have it as well available. So so call ahead. Check around. But we know it's out there. I also saw some rite aids in the list, so it's available.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about messaging. I'm intrigued by and I'm guessing you know about this, the CDC is messaging this year and how they want to help manage expectations for us and this wild to mild campaign, if you will.

HAHN: Yeah, I just heard that phrase the first time a few days ago, the wild to mild and kind of like it. It's kind of catchy. Yeah. You know, I think what they're trying to say is critics of vaccines often say, oh, you can get the vaccine and you'll still get the disease, you'll still get Covid, you might still get flu. And what CDC is trying to turn that message around a little bit and say, yeah, you might still get it, but you won't end up in the hospital. You won't end up nearly as sick. You'll, you know, the more practical of us among us might say, you know, even if I've already had Covid vaccines, I don't want to miss a week of work. You know, I don't want to be sick for those many days, get the vaccine and tame that disease. So even if you get it, it's going to be probably a very mild infection and it won't put you under.

PRENTICE: It'll be really interesting to see if that campaign is successful. Well, do you have a sense of our vaccination rates? I read the other day a CDC survey that suggests that, you know, our vaccinations have largely plateaued nationwide following the pandemic.

HAHN: Yeah, I think this is going to be a tough year. Honestly. I think people are ready to put all of this in their rearview mirror. We all want to go back to normal life. And it's it's not top of anybody's fun things to do on the weekend to go get shots. So I think it's going to be a tough year to to really get people interested in these vaccines. Flu shots. We know even flu shots that have been around for a long time. We only have depending on what age group you're talking about, maybe about half of the people that we think should have a flu shot in the fall even get that shot. Covid vaccine. Even last year, we only had about across the country about 17% of people who should have gotten that vaccine got that. Done as far as when say, should mean we're recommended to receive it. So I think it's going to be a tough sell. Rsv is even another challenge in that it's not necessarily covered by everyone's insurance yet. So people are going to want to check about that If they're interested in getting the RSV vaccine, talk to your health care provider and your insurer about make sure that you're going to have coverage for that. So I think it's going to be a little tough this year unless, of course, we start seeing news about we don't want a severe season, but that might get people's attention if we do, you know, hopefully not. But if we have a really severe season, I think that might bring people in.

PRENTICE: And lest we bury the lead: vaccines keep people out of hospitals and save lives.

HAHN: Exactly. Exactly. So again, I always say to people, I feel like I'm a healthy individual. I'm not too worried about a few days of sickness, but I don't want to be in the hospital. I don't want to have a severe case of something. And I know the vaccines will help me prevent that.

PRENTICE: Dr. Christine Hahn is our medical director of the Division of Public Health and Idaho State epidemiologist. And we appreciate any time that she gives us, and especially this morning, for all of the boxes that you helped us check. Thanks for what you do every day and thanks for giving us some time.

HAHN: Thank you so much, George. Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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