Measles in Pierce County justifies Washington’s new stricter vaccination law

The collective exhale heard around the Pacific Northwest in late April was the sound of relief, as public health authorities declared an exceptionally bad measles outbreak was over.

Some people took the news as a sign the alarm had been overblown. They saw the virus as under control and geographically contained; in Washington, nearly all measles cases were reported in the Vancouver area, while nationally, the vast majority of infections have occurred in New York.

Pierce County appeared to escape unscathed. Having no measles cases here was cause for comfort, especially after health department leaders warned that supbar vaccination rates in 13 out of 15 local school districts left the community vulnerable.

It turns out we all got too comfortable too soon.

The collective inhale heard around the South Sound last week was the reaction to a pair of measles cases reported in Pierce County. Three infections also came to light in King and Snohomish counties as the worst measles season in a quarter century drags on, topping 75 cases in Washington and 800 across the U.S.

There’s no need for panic. The wise course of action is for people to check their immunization records — the state Department of Health has a handy online search tool — and make sure all family members are vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and other diseases.

Meanwhile, the local cases have put a timely exclamation point on an overdue change to state law. This year’s measles surge helped legislators finally break through a wall of anti-vax activism, a misguided parents-rights crusade that paralyzed Olympia on a vital public health issue for years.

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill this month eliminating the personal or philosophical exemption for families seeking to avoid the MMR vaccination for their kids. It’s a significant step to endow more Washington schoolchildren with “herd immunity” — a rate of vaccination high enough that viruses can’t spread in a given population.

Where we live, this is nothing to sneeze at. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control routinely lists Washington in the top tier of unvaccinated states. And a national academic research team this month ranked King County as the No. 5 most likely epicenter for a measles outbreak in the U.S.

That should give South Sound residents pause, because measles are like real estate prices: What happens in Seattle doesn’t stay in Seattle.

Think of House Bill 1638 as a means to strengthen the circle of protection around the small number of Washington kids who can’t be vaccinated for genuine medical reasons and those for whom vaccinations don’t produce immunity.

Anti-vaxxers buy into pseudo-science and conspiracy theories for a variety of reasons. They don’t like government telling them what to do. They don’t trust conventional medicine. They reject the consensus view of pediatricians and won’t let go of an infamous 1998 report linking vaccines to autism, despite it being retracted and exposed as a fraud.

In their hearts, they no doubt believe they’re defending their children’s best interests.

But here’s a key point: You don’t have to vaccinate in Washington. No Health Department gestapo unit will go door to door, forcing children to roll up their sleeves. Anti-vax diehards can enjoy their liberty as long as they accept the consequences: Their kids can’t be enrolled in public schools or licensed childcare facilities.

What’s more, the new state law retains vaccination exemptions for religious and medical reasons — loopholes that some families will certainly exploit. In California, officials have seen a wave of bogus letters sold by mercenary doctors since the state got rid of its philosophical exemption in 2015.

While Washington will need to watch for similar abuses, the overall goal is not to vaccinate every child; it’s to incrementally increase the numbers closer to 95 percent, into the herd-immunity zone.

Measles has a long, unpleasant history in our state, dating back to its transmission between white settlers and Native Americans during the 19th century. The virus has been described as the spark that lit the fuse of the Whitman Massacre near Walla Walla in 1847.

Scientific and medical advances enabled the world to wipe out measles more than a half century ago. The fact that sparks continue to flare into outbreaks today reflects poorly on the status of Washington’s modern public health system.

Ending the personal exemption for vaccine opponents gives us some breathing room going forward.