infectious diseases
Members of the central Oklahoma medical community took part in an infectious diseases panel hosted by Oklahoma Watch on Tuesday, May 22, 2019. (Matt Patterson)

The rise in measles outbreaks and other infectious diseases took center stage Tuesday night in a public forum hosted by Oklahoma Watch.

There have been more than 800 reported cases of measles nationally in 2019 in 23 states, including one in Oklahoma. In the last week alone, the CDC reported 41 new cases nationally.

The uptick in measles has renewed discussions on the value of vaccinations, particularly for children.

Panelist and Norman pediatrician Thomas Kuhls said the resurgence of measles is disappointing. He began his practice in the 1980s and is nearing retirement.

“Now as my career is ending, I feel very sad because diseases like measles — which I saw in my young career but didn’t see a case of for 25 years — are coming back,” Kuhls said. “Diseases we thought we had under control are re-emerging because it’s not just a matter of infectious diseases and advancements in science it’s also what’s happening with social media and vaccines that play a role.”

Vaccines were also a topic of discussion covered by the panelists, who answered a question from Oklahoma Watch executive editor David Fritze about their safety. Audience members also asked about vaccine liability and placebo-based studies. All three panelists agreed vaccinations are integral to public health.

“There was a lot of press that came out after Dr. (Andrew) Wakefield published his study in LANCET with regard to autism” OU Medical center infectious disease pharmacist Dr. Bryan White said. “Multiple studies have shown that link does not exist. (…) There are some risks with vaccines, but the benefits far outweigh the risks.”

During the audience portion of the event, the subject came up again. One member of the audience asked why adult vaccinations haven’t received more focus in the medical community, especially flu vaccinations.

“The medical community has done a very poor job in terms of adults and adult immunizations, and I think part of that has to do with training,” Kuhls said. “With pediatricians, we spend a lot of time learning in medical school about vaccines because it’s part of what we do, and in internal medicine there isn’t. I think the mentality needs to change.”

Burnsed: School survey participation a problem

Oklahoma State Department of Health epidemiologist Laurence Burnsed also spoke about the relatively low reporting rate among schools in Oklahoma on state immunization surveys. About 90 percent of public schools participate. Private school participation is lower with about 57 percent reporting, he said.

“We have a much lower response rate with private schools, and that can be better,” Burnsed said. “That is a challenge. There is definitely a gap in the data.”

Other topics included the value of hand washing, the use of masks and the presence of infectious diseases in hospitals.

“Hand hygiene is one of the most important public health measures,” Burnsed said. “It’s basic, it’s available for everyone and it’s effective for many pathogens of interest you might accidentally spread to others. It’s one we can’t stress enough.”

Oklahoma Watch’s video of their forum can be found below. Additionally, NonDoc has recently published contrasting letters from a parental rights advocate and a local physician on the topic of vaccine safety.

(Correction: This story was updated at 4:12 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, to note that only one measles case has been identified in Oklahoma so far this year.)