A recent outbreak of 127 measles cases scattered across 10 states has caught national attention, but, closer to home, there have been two cases of another vaccine-preventable disease in the measles-mumps-rubella complex in Williams County — the mumps.
The North Dakota Department of Health has confirmed five cases of mumps statewide, three of them in Stark County and two in Williams County.
Mumps is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus that typically results in tenderness and swelling of the salivary glands in the cheeks and neck. It can also lead, however to more serious complications, such as meningitis and hearing loss, among others.
“The easiest and safest way to prevent the mumps is the vaccine,” said Jenny Galbraith, with the North Dakota Department of Health. “The mumps can be very serious.”
School-age children are at the greatest risk for contracting the disease, primarily because they are in close quarters, where the disease can readily spread.
Mumps had been on the decline in the United States, Galbraith said, but a recent anti-vaccination movement has prompted growing numbers of parents to opt their children out of the traditional measles-mumps-rubella vaccination complex.
Among their often-stated fears is a study — later proven to be a fabrication — that linked the shots to increased risk of autism. Galbraith said it is critical for people to make sure the sources they go to for information about vaccines are truly reliable and reputable, not just material shared among friends on Facebook.
“There hasn’t been a study that scientifically says that autism is caused by vaccines,” she said. “And some of these diseases can be really serious. Getting the vaccine is the safest, easiest way to prevent your child from getting very sick.”
North Dakota is one of 17 states that allows people to opt out of vaccinations for personal reasons. Forty-seven states, including North Dakota, allow opting out for religious reasons. New York is among the latter, and has been fighting measles outbreaks since last fall. They have had more than 200 cases in all.
Galbraith said the number of people requesting exemption for school-age children due to either personal or religious beliefs has been rising in North Dakota. That number was 3.1 percent in 2017-18, the most recent year in which statistics are available.
This is having a detrimental effect on the state’s “herd immunity,” a term that refers to having enough people in a given population that are already immune to a disease to protect the rest. If enough people are immune, that short-circuits available pathways for transmission. The exact percentage required to confer herd immunity varies by disease, but in general, the state’s goal is 95 percent vaccination rates for measles, mumps, and rubella
North Dakota now stands at 94 percent statewide, but Williams County is well below that. Its rate is at 87.75 percent for 2017/18, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
If that number continues to drop, it means more and more unvaccinated people will be at risk for catching any of the three diseases in the MMR complex, but particularly measles, as there have been so many outbreaks in the United States right now.
“(Measles) is very contagious,” Galbraith said. “It is something that could easily come to North Dakota if someone travels to one of these spots and then travels back.”
Measles had also almost been eradicated in the United States, Galbraith said, but is making a comeback now that so many children aren’t getting vaccinated.
Even if parents are unconcerned about their own children getting sick, Galbraith believes they should consider other people who have depressed immune systems and thus cannot be vaccinated. For them, exposure to these illnesses would be very serious. Compromising the herd immunity of a community puts all of them at risk as well.
“We do have a program here in North Dakota, vaccines for children,” she added. “Free vaccinations for children who have no insurance or are underinsured, so there is always an option. The best way to prevent these diseases is to just get the vaccine. We know they are safe and effective.”