Amid measles outbreak, health care professionals step up

Using blogs, infographics, media interviews, even visits to mosques, doctors and communicators are emphasizing the importance of vaccination—and dispelling ‘anti-vaxxer’ mythologies.

Measles outbreak

Health care practitioners and communicators are waging a concerted, multiple-front battle against measles.

When an outbreak hit Washington state recently, Swedish hospital in Seattle pitched one of its doctors to a local TV station to discuss the importance of “community immunity.”

Dr. Elizabeth Meade, the chief of pediatrics, told King5 News that 97 percent of those who have had the required two doses are protected. Yet as growing numbers of people don’t get vaccinated because of fears of complications, they put themselves and their communities at risk.

“We need a certain threshold of people to be vaccinated in order to prevent epidemics and really widespread outbreaks like we’re seeing right now in Washington state,” Meade said.

More than 200 cases of measles have been confirmed in the United States in the past few months, forcing hospital communicators to step up their outreach on the subject, PBS reports. So many cases have occurred in the Pacific Northwest that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared an emergency.

Cases have occurred in New York, Minnesota and elsewhere around the country as parents resist vaccination for religious reasons or out of fear of side effects. Many “anti-vaxxers” harbor unfounded suspicions that vaccinations might be related to autism.

Citing the science

Many hospitals are seeking to allay those fears. An infographic from Cleveland Clinic states that 45 scientific studies have found that there is no link between autism and vaccinations.

Swedish Senior Communications Manager Karrie Spitzer said that in addition to the hospital’s pitch to King5 and KCPQ, it has produced videos in which Meade discusses autism and vaccination-related issues concerning the flu.

“It’s important for us to provide an expert perspective in an effort to help stop the swirl of inaccurate information that may be circulating in our communities,” Spitzer said.

Yet there is strong opposition to vaccination by anti-vaxxers. At least 20 states have introduced bills this year that would broaden the reasons parents can exempt kids from required vaccines and which would require doctors to provide more information on the risks of vaccines, reports WPCO Cincinnati.

To thwart the spread of false information, Facebook announced Thursday that it would reduce the ranking of groups and pages that spread misinformation about vaccinations. These will not be included in recommendations or in predictions that users type in the search window, said Monika Bickert, vice president of global policy management.

“When we find ads that include misinformation about vaccinations, we will reject them,” she wrote. “We also removed related targeting options, like ‘vaccine controversies.’ For ad accounts that continue to violate our policies, we may take further action, such as disabling the ad account.”

The battle is an urgent one. Just over a century ago, measles killed 6,000 people a year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. As late as the decade before 1963—when a vaccine became available—up to 4 million people in the United States caught the disease annually, and it killed as many as 500 people per year. Some 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 suffered from encephalitis, or swelling of the brain.

That’s why the CDC and many health care communicators have made a concerted effort to push back against anti-vaxxers. The CDC has prepared a landing page filled with information for parents, health care providers and travelers who might risk coming in contact with measles, also known as rubeola.

The CDC is communicating through pages of frequently asked questions about measles, a recommended immunization schedule for children through 6 years of age, and infographics with titles such as “Measles: More than just a little rash.” It warns that measles can lead to pneumonia, deafness, brain damage and death.

In the section for health care providers, the information ranges from provider resources to photos of patients with measles. The CDC is also tweeting and producing videos to educate people about vaccines.

Running with the herd

Cleveland Clinic has devoted a page of its consumer blog, Health Essentials, to measles and vaccinations,  and it has offered expert interviews to media outlets, says Angie Kiska, senior director of public and media relations.

“It’s important for us to provide this information because vaccinations prevent serious diseases and keep our communities healthy,” Kiska says. “There are people in our communities who can’t get vaccinated because of certain diseases or illnesses. Herd immunity is so important to protecting those who can’t get vaccinated.”

Other health care organizations, such as Advocate Children’s Hospital in Illinois, have joined the social media campaign.

Advocate Aurora Health’s brand journalism site also sought to address the fears of anti-vaxxers.

“Parents need to understand that not immunizing your children puts them at greater risk for getting the measles, “says Dr. Frank Belmonte, a pediatrician and chief medical officer, Advocate Children’s Hospital. “You are also putting other children, many with compromised immune systems, like cancer patients, at risk for complications that could take their lives.”

NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center successfully placed one of its physicians in a media spot with Yahoo Lifestyle to offer similar warnings, says Jordan Reed, senior editor in the office of communications at NewYork-Presbyterian.

“It is pretty black and white,” says Dr. Alok Patel, a pediatrician. “Vaccination is a foolproof method to curb the spread of measles. … We’ve since looked at millions of kids completely debunking that there’s any link between autism and [the vaccine].”

Harnessing the blog

Providence St. Joseph Health in Irvine, California, enlisted Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, its chief clinical officer, to write a blog post on measles.

She noted that Washington state has reached an unwanted milestone—the highest number of reported measles infections since 1996.  Cases were identified in King and Clark counties, and threatened Portland, Oregon, across the Columbia River.

“There is no prescription to treat measles,” she writes. “The virus and symptoms usually subside within two to three weeks, but even if there aren’t complications, it can make you sicker than the flu or chicken pox for an extended period.”

More than 800 students, exposed to the highly contagious disease in Southwest Washington’s Clark County, have been ordered to stay away from classrooms for up to three weeks, disrupting their education, The Associated Press stated.

“Since January, field trips, after-school activities and an assembly honoring Martin Luther King Jr. have been canceled or postponed,” the paper reported. Some students are doing homework off prepared handouts; others are using school-issued laptops to keep up.”

Fears of autism fueled anti-vaccination sentiment among Somali immigrants in Minnesota, reports Modern Healthcare. In that state, the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination rate for Somali-born children was at 92 percent as recently 2004. But by 2012, the immunization rate among Somali Minnesotans at 24 months of age had fallen to 46 percent, Modern Healthcare stated in a 2017 article.

Health care workers at Children’s Minnesota hospital, along state officials, visited mosques and launched a social media campaign to target younger parents. The hospital also established a group of Somali health care professionals who helped connect with community leaders.

America’s largest city is not exempt. The New York Times reported March 7 on the city’s largest outbreak in a decade: A student infected 21 others after a school in Brooklyn ignored advice not to admit students who hadn’t been vaccinated against measles.

As of March 5, there had been 133 confirmed cases of measles in Brooklyn and Queens since October, mostly among members of the Orthodox Jewish community, the city Health Department reported.

“The outbreak, at Yeshiva Kehilath Yakov in Williamsburg, is reigniting concerns that too many people in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities are unvaccinated,” the Times reported, “as well as worries that measles would continue to spread after travelers arrived last fall from parts of Israel and Europe, where the virus was spreading.”

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