Samoa is fighting a deadly measles outbreak, and Alaska public health officials are paying attention

An Anchorage Health Department web page featuring a measles public health alert on Dec. 2, 2019. (Image via Municipality of Anchorage)

An ongoing measles outbreak in the South Pacific country of Samoa has killed more than 50 people and sickened thousands more, prompting the government to close schools and launch a mass vaccination campaign. 

While Alaska is more than 4,500 miles away, health officials are paying attention.

“Alaskans travel all over the world, so there’s always the potential to get an import case coming into our state,” said Matthew Bobo, immunization program manager for the State of Alaska. “We’re always constantly monitoring.”

Alaska’s measles immunization rate remains below the national average, and below the level necessary to fully protect a community from the disease. To reach herd immunity, researchers say a community must have an immunization rate above 90 percent.

In Samoa, the measles vaccination rate plunged below 40 percent last year, according to estimates from the World Health Organization. In Alaska, as of 2016, approximately 88 percent of children age 2 and under had received a measles vaccine, Bobo said. It presents a clear risk.

“There might be a case floating around in the population,” he said. “If your child doesn’t have that protection, then they could possibly get the illness.”

Nationwide, there were only 10 cases reported in the month of October. There hasn’t been a reported case of measles in Alaska since a Kenai Peninsula teenager was diagnosed in July, Bobo said. The last case in Anchorage was reported in 2015.

Still, public health officials around the state are taking steps to spread awareness. A September update to the Department of Health and Social Services website warns that “The state is not currently in outbreak status, but measles is still circulating globally and we could still see more cases in Alaska.”

In Anchorage, the homepage of the public health department’s website features a public health alert telling visitors what they need to know to protect against measles.

Drew Shannon, a public health nurse with the Anchorage Health Department, says education and access to vaccines remain some of the most important tools available to combat the spread of the disease. While measles cases in Alaska are now rare, Anchorage is nicknamed the “Air Crossroads of the World,” and people across the state maintain family connections around the globe.

“An outbreak is only a plane ride away,” Shannon said. “So if somebody gets infected where they’re having an outbreak in another country, they can return to Alaska with that infection and then spread it to those who are most at-risk and vulnerable for it.”

Those vulnerable groups include infants, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Vaccinating other community members against the spread of disease remains the best way to protect the community as a whole, state and local public health officials say.

Measles immunizations are currently available at retail pharmacies and public health centers around the state.

Kirsten Swann is a producer and reporter for Alaska Public Media.

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