Although no cases of measles have been detected in Montana, the Missoula City/County Health Department is on high alert for suspicious rashes accompanied by fevers.

Ellen Leahy, the department’s health officer, briefed members of the city’s Public Safety and Health Committee Wednesday morning, a day after New York City declared a public health emergency and called for mandatory vaccinations.

“We are preparing for a measles outbreak,” Leahy said. “It is the most infectious disease I have ever been involved with.”

Leahy noted that as of the first week of April, 465 cases of measles were reported across the country in a fast-moving outbreak in 19 states. The rash of measles cases comes after it was thought to be eliminated in the United States in 2000, after vaccinations became readily available in 1963.

However, travelers from other countries can bring the disease to this country, and mistrust over the side effects of various vaccines — including anti-vaccination groups often citing misinformation — has led to a rise in cases in recent years.

“This is the largest number (of measles cases) since 2000, except for the 2014 Disneyland outbreak in California,” Leahy said. “We don’t think it will hit (Missoula County) next week, but are being super vigilant.”

Missoula County hasn’t had a case of measles since 1990, but Leahy noted they had three cases recently of rashes that luckily didn’t turn out to be measles. With outbreaks in nearby states including Oregon, Washington and Colorado, the city, county and University of Montana held a “tabletop” preparedness exercise recently to sort out everyone’s roles.

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If a child is brought to an emergency room with a rash, Leahy said hospital officials have plans to immediately put that person in respiratory isolation. Since the highly contagious disease remains infectious for two hours after a person has left the room, the hospital needs to track down everyone who may have come into the area during that time frame, she added.

“Measles is an airborne disease with a long incubation period … of seven to 21 days,” Leahy said. “It’s contagious for four days before and four days after the rash. So it’s contagious even before a person comes down with a fever.”

She described it as a classic rash that runs from head to toe, concentrated near the hairline, accompanied by a fever.

The good news, Leahy said, is if someone is exposed to measles and gets vaccinated within 72 hours, chances are they won’t develop the disease, nor will they spread it. In addition, people born before 1957 are considered entirely immune since they probably lived through several years of epidemic measles before the vaccine was available.

Those seeking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations can go to the city/county walk-in clinic at 301 West Alder between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. every day except Wednesday, when the clinic opens at 10 a.m. Leahy said they take insurance and Medicaid, and also offer sliding fees based on income. For certain patients, the shots are free, and more information is available at 406-258-4745.

Councilor Heather Harp urged people to get vaccinated, noting that many haven’t lived through an outbreak so communities have lost the institutional memory of what that entails.

“I think we are at that point in history where we don’t remember how bad it was to have these experiences with MMR and even chicken pox,” Harp said. “Those diseases are awful to our humanity.”

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