Following an outbreak of more than 50 cases of measles near the Washington/Oregon border last week, doctors and nurses at Community Medical Center began seeing a big increase in people asking advice on how to prevent infections.

“We’ve been getting a handful of calls every day, and most patients I see have questions and concerns about it,” explained Charlie Hastings, a pediatrician at Missoula Valley Pediatrics.

Measles is a highly contagious infectious virus, but there hasn’t been a case in Montana since 1990. About 1 in 1,000 people who contract the disease develop serious complications like brain inflammation that can lead to death.

Infants under age 1, people with immune deficiency problems and pregnant women are particularly susceptible. Vaccinations are safe for children age 1 and over, and all children should get a second vaccination at age 4 that will protect them through their school years, according to Hastings.

Hastings said based on the reports he’s seen, between 75 percent and 78 percent of the people in Clark County, Washington, where almost all of the recent measles cases occurred, were vaccinated against the virus.

“For overall protection against an outbreak, at least 90 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated,” he said. “A few years ago there was a study in Missoula that showed 95 percent of elementary-aged kids have the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, which should alone be good enough to prevent an outbreak. That doesn’t mean there can’t be isolated pockets here and there.”

The symptoms of measles are similar to a cold virus, including fever, runny nose, sore throat and cough. Measles also causes inflamed eyes and a skin rash as it progresses.

Megan Condra, the director of marketing and community relations at CMC, said the hospital is encouraging anyone who suspects they or someone they know has measles to first call the hospital so medical providers can take the proper precautions before the patient comes to the hospital.

A person can still get infected with measles if they simply walk into a room two hours after a person with the virus was in the room, Condra explained. That’s why places like airports or large public gatherings can cause outbreaks if one person has the virus.

“The biggest thing is they need to call before they show up,” she said.

Community hospital has a separate space they can use for a quarantine area, and doctors and nurses need to protect themselves and other patients.

At Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, spokesperson JoAnn Hoven said there are screening measures in place for all clinics and the emergency department. She also said the hospital is encouraging those who have clinical symptoms consistent with measles, or those who have been exposed to a person with measles and aren’t vaccinated, to call a health care provider first for guidance.

“We are working closely with the health department and community partners to ensure we have the practices in place to care for all our patients in the event we have measles transmission in our area,” she said. “We are encouraging everyone to check their vaccination status for the protection of the community.”

Earlier this week, three cases of mumps were confirmed by public health officials in Bozeman. Hastings said the same vaccine for measles, MMR, will prevent mumps cases.

“Mumps is not as contagious as measles,” he said. “We’ll see what that (Bozeman incident) turns out to be. Typically we’ll see scattered outbreaks.”

The hospital is continuing to see high rates of flu cases, he said, but explained it’s just coincidence that the Washington measles outbreak happened at the peak of flu season.

Jennifer Thompson, an infection prevention specialist at Community, said the hospital has a whole sterilization and cleaning protocol to prevent outbreaks from happening.

“We do a lot of hand washing education,” she said.

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