Salem Hospital began asking patients about measles exposure last week due to an ongoing outbreak in the Vancouver area. (Caleb Wolf/Special to Salem Reporter)

Salem health officials are urging people to make sure they’re vaccinated against measles due to an ongoing outbreak in the Portland and Vancouver area that has sickened several dozen people.

No cases have been reported in Marion or Polk county, but Paul Cieslak, Oregon’s medical director for communicable diseases, said he “wouldn’t be surprised” to see cases spread to the Salem area.

Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus. Symptoms start with a fever, runny nose, cough, red eyes and sore throat, followed by a blotchy rash. More serious complications happen in about one-third of cases.

The Marion County Health Department is not currently monitoring anyone who may have been exposed to the virus, but has been fielding questions from people with concerns after traveling to the Portland area.

“There’s a lot of similar spheres of contact,” said Christopher Cirino, the department’s health officer.

Salem Health began asking patients about measles exposure and vaccination at clinics and hospitals last week, said Julie Koch, infection prevention manager.

Nearly all the cases in the Portland area have been in people not vaccinated against measles. Clark County has one of the lowest vaccination coverage rates in Washington, with about 5 percent of schoolchildren opting out of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

The vaccine is safe and highly effective. People who have been vaccinated “need not worry” about their possible exposure to someone who’s sick, Cirino said.

Marion and Polk counties have better vaccine coverage than many other parts of Oregon, especially in public schools.

Marion County has 1,649 school-age children who have opted out of the measles vaccine for religious or medical reasons, about 3 percent of K-12 students, according to state data.

Another 463 school-age children in Polk County opted out, or 3.6 percent.

When about 95 percent of people are vaccinated, that group of people has “herd immunity,” meaning a disease is unlikely to spread far even if one person does get sick, Cieslak said. Herd immunity protects people who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons or because they’re too young.

While the Salem area hits that threshold, some individual schools do not. About a dozen schools in Salem, Dallas, Silverton and Woodburn have more than 10 percent of the student body who aren’t vaccinated against measles. Most are charter or private schools.

“The problem is it’s not uniform throughout the state,” Cieslak said. “The key question is, ‘Is measles going to hit one of those schools?’”

Every Salem-Keizer public school has at least 94 percent of students vaccinated against measles, and the district is working with the health department to send families information about vaccination.

People who are unsure whether they’ve been vaccinated can check with their doctor, who can access the state’s vaccination database. Schools also keep records for students.

Anyone who suspects they might have measles should call their doctor, an urgent care facility or hospital before coming in for treatment to avoid exposing more people to the virus, officials said.

People with questions about the outbreak or vaccination can call 211 to reach a state line with more information.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: (503) 575-1241 or [email protected]

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