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New York City, Oregon and Washington have all been affected by measles outbreaks in the last few months, and Lewis and Clark County and Helena Public Schools are working to help prevent something similar from happening here. 

Measles is a highly infectious disease that causes a high fever, coughing and runny nose, and in some cases it can become pneumonia. This is when measles can turn deadly. If someone who is infected with measles sneezes or coughs, the virus can live in the air for up to two hours, which makes it easily transmittable. And at highly frequented places like schools, that longevity makes measles incredibly dangerous.

Barb Ridgeway, chief of staff for Helena Public Schools, said the schools have been working on plans for the last few months to keep children safe. About 98% of Helena's 8,000 students have received vaccines, a highly effective treatment given to children between 1 and 12 years old. The vaccine has cut measles cases by 99% since it was first introduced in the 1960s.

Ridgeway said school nurses have been speaking with parents about immunizing their children and working with administrators and staff to "stress the importance of immunizations."

But if a case of measles does show up in Helena Public Schools, nonimmunized students will be "excluded from school until 21 days after the last documented case."

Ridgeway said parents of nonimmunized children have been notified of the possibility their children could have to stay home for weeks. Any nonimmunized staff would also be sent home.

While the school system is preparing for a possible outbreak, Lewis and Clark County Disease Control and Prevention Division administrator Eric Merchant said the county is more worried about adults than children catching the measles. 

"Children are fairly well covered," Merchant said, referring to the vaccination rate in Helena Public Schools.

"There are other segments we're more concerned about, as we don't have a great understanding about the (county's) overall vaccination rate."

Merchant suggested the greatest chance for an outbreak is in small collections of nonvaccinated adults.

"That's where an outbreak takes hold," Merchant said. "It's our primary concern."

The county has been working with local health partners and the Department of Public Health and Human Services to make sure everyone knows how best to respond to a measles outbreak in the county.

"We included a bunch of information in coordination with the school district," Merchant said. "We're seeing a bump in people getting MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccines." 

Merchant said Walgreens, Wal-Mart, CVS, hospitals and clinics provide basic vaccinations for most people. The county provides services at the "Open Clinic" from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and operates as a backstop for immunizations, which means the county will provide services for anyone living in Lewis and Clark County regardless of their ability to pay.

"Whether uninsured or underinsured, low-income or well-to-do, we will not turn anyone away," Merchant said.

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Crime and Health Reporter

Crime and health reporter for the Helena Independent Record.

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