Alaska public health officials are keeping an eye out for cases of measles, especially in residents who travel to and from the Philippines.
That country’s health department this week declared an outbreak of the disease in parts of Manila, the capital.
Alaska has a large Filipino population, many of whom traveled home for the holidays or who have been back there to help rebuild after Super Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in early November.
The Centers for Disease Control has issued a travel notice for people going to the Philippines. The agency says all travelers to the country should get routine vaccinations, including the measles, mumps, and rubella shot. Most travelers are encouraged to get immunized against hepatitis A and typhoid as well.
Dr. Mike Cooper, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health and Social Services, says the risk of Alaskans contracting measles is pretty low, but “what’s going on right now in the Philippines is a great reminder that we live in a very global world. Ease of travel has increased, and so things like measles, unfortunately, are still around.”
Measles is a highly contagious virus that spreads through coughing, sneezing, and close personal contact with an infected person.
“People get a fever, sometimes very high, they can get red eyes, and a runny nose, and a cough,” Cooper says. “And after usually four days or so they’ll present with a rash – kind of a generalized splotchy rash that can start on their head and then move downward.”
Cooper says the disease can be serious, even deadly, especially for the very young, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems.
Dante Reyes is president of Juneau’s nonprofit Filipino Community, Inc. About 3,000 Filipinos call the Capital City home, and Reyes says many of them travel to and from the country at least once per year.
“I know that some of our members were traveling in the Philippines,” Reyes says. “And actually they were there and they left maybe in the last part of December, early January.”
Reyes says he always goes to a doctor before traveling to the Philippines to make sure he’s up-to-date on his vaccinations. He says most of his friends and relatives who live in Juneau do the same.
He says phone service is still spotty in Tacloban, where Super Typhoon Haiyan did most of its damage. Members of Juneau’s Filipino community who travel in the country often keep in touch with friends and relatives in the Unites States using social media sites, like Facebook.
“I have no idea if some of our members were affected by that epidemic in the Philippines right now,” says Reyes. “I think it’s in Manila, and some of them were in the metro Manila area and some of them were in the provinces.”
In 1996, Juneau had the largest measles outbreak in the United States, with 63 confirmed cases – mostly school children. Two years later, Anchorage had the nation’s largest outbreak, with more than 30 confirmed cases.
After that the state started requiring two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine for public school students. Dr. Cooper says there haven’t been any outbreaks in Alaska since then.
“It’s one of those diseases where we’ve done a good job in the U.S. of lowering rates and getting rid of homegrown disease,” Cooper says. “But then when you get pockets of people that are not immunized – whether they declined it, or didn’t get immunized when they were children, or as they got older their immunity waned – they’re vulnerable.”
Kate Slotnick, Southeast Alaska regional nurse manager for the Division of Public Health, says the agency will reach out to local Filipino groups in the area to share information about the measles outbreak in the Philippines.
Other than that, public health officials say they’re just reminding doctors and nurses to be vigilant and watch out for the disease.