Airline passenger spread measles to travelers on flight to San Francisco, officials say

Getting vaccinated can help stop measles from spreading

Since measles is still common in many countries, unvaccinated travelers bring measles to the U.S. and it can spread. But you can protect yourself, your family, and your community with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.
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Since measles is still common in many countries, unvaccinated travelers bring measles to the U.S. and it can spread. But you can protect yourself, your family, and your community with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Bay Area health officials said this week that there was a small measles outbreak last month after a traveler with the disease passed it to two other passengers on an international flight.

The passenger carrying the easily-spread virus was a Santa Cruz County resident, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health. That flight exposed a San Francisco and a Santa Clara County resident to the disease, and both grew sick — but no other passengers from the flight contracted the virus, which officials know because measles develops within 21 days of exposure, and the flight was more than three weeks ago, the health department said.

Health officials said in the news release that the “general public is at very low risk of measles as a result of these cases.” It’s the city’s first case of measles since 2013, the county public health department said in a press release on Tuesday.

Rachael Kagan, a spokesperson for the San Francisco health department, told McClatchy in a phone interview Thursday that the flight that the virus spread on came from Asia.

The public health department said there are many areas with measles epidemics across the world, including parts of Western Europe, Brazil, the Philippines, Indonesia, Israel, Ukraine and Romania. Health officials emphasized that the best way to ward off the potentially deadly virus is through vaccination. Measles is no longer common in the United States, but outbreaks this year in areas of Washington state with low immunization rates have raised public health fears.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it has confirmed 206 cases of measles across 11 states this year as of Feb. 28, including in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Texas and Washington.

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“Public health investigators have not identified any evidence indicating that measles is spreading within the impacted counties,” San Francisco’s health department said. “Making sure you have all your immunizations is especially important for travelers, because measles is circulating in many countries outside the United States.”

Health officials recommend the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine for “infants ages 6-11 months before going on an international trip,” the health department said.

Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson—a pediatrician, mother and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics—offer some answers about the safety and efficacy of the MMR vaccine.

Santa Clara County’s public health department described the virus as a “highly contagious” respiratory disease, spread by as little as a cough or a sneeze. The first symptoms to crop up are runny nose, fever, cough and red eyes, and then measles sufferers come down with a full-body rash, health officials said.

Santa Clara County Public Health Department spokeswoman Britt Ehrhardt said health officials “conducted a contact investigation to identify individuals who might have had contact with the Santa Clara County resident with measles while that person was contagious,” Bay Area News Group reports.

Ehrhardt said a contact investigation tracks everywhere the measles patient went and every person he or she interacted with to see who may have been exposed, and she said the investigation revealed the resident “did not go out in public while contagious with measles,” according to Bay Area News Group.

Bay Area News Group reported that the cases seem to be the first this year in the Bay Area.

But there was a measles outbreak in the area almost exactly a year ago, after an unvaccinated 15-year-old boy visited England and Wales and returned with the virus in Santa Clara County — spreading it in March 2018 to an unvaccinated 16-year-old at a scouting event, an unvaccinated 15-year-old classmate and a vaccinated 21-year-old man, according to a CDC report released this month on the outbreak.

The next month an unvaccinated Alameda County man came down with measles, and said he got it from his 7-year-old nephew, who investigation revealed had gone to the same tutoring center as the teen who brought the outbreak to the Bay Area, the CDC said.

The 7-year-old’s 4-year-old brother came down with the virus, too — but their mother lied to investigators and said both children had been vaccinated, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

“On the one hand, yay, this outbreak only got so big. It was only seven people. But it could have been five, or three,” said Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento, who authored a new law tightening California vaccination requirements, according to the Chronicle. “We had our public health workers trying to contain an outbreak, and people actively not wanting to help them. What this outbreak shows is we still have a problem.”

The Democratic state senator from Sacramento on June 26, 2015 recounted why he introduced Senate Bill 277, a hugely controversial bill requiring vaccinations for California school children.

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Jared Gilmour is a McClatchy national reporter based in San Francisco. He covers everything from health and science to politics and crime. He studied journalism at Northwestern University and grew up in North Dakota.