Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) An increase in the number measles cases reported in the United States and other countries have health officials in Missoula County on watch.

Recently, a number of cases appeared in at least 17 states including Arizona, California and Washington. While the infectious virus hasn't made it's way to Missoula, health officials said it may only be a plane ride away.

“People are flying for business, recreation and travel all around the country. It could always be a plane ride or two from being here. The incubation period makes it challenging,” said B-Rad Applegate, a disease intervention specialist with the City-County Health Department.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, largely due to strong childhood vaccination programs. But as vaccine opposition among some remains strong, the number of measles cases has again begun to climb.

The number of cases in Europe are up 30-fold, according to the CDC, and in the U.S., at least 45 cases had been reported by early March.

“If someone is exposed to measles, they might feel fine for 21 days and then they start to get sick,” said Applegate. “Because there is that average two- or three-week exposure, someone could have unknowingly been exposed, traveled back to Missoula and had a number of other contacts.”

An exposure can quickly lead to other cases among unpopulated members of the public. The virus is highly contagious, so much so that if one person has it, up to 90% of those close to them can become infected if not vaccinated.

The virus also lingers for as long as 2 hours in the air after an infected person has left the room. In other words, according to the CDC, “someone can get infected by simply being in a room where a person with measles walked through.”

Children younger than 5 and adults older than 20 are more likely to suffer complications from measles. During one recent outbreak in Ohio, more than 40% of infected infants and children required hospitalization.

“If someone is not vaccinated, it's one of the most communicable diseases we know. Just sitting in the same room, breathing the same air, with someone that's infected with the measles virus, that can be sufficient to constitute an exposure,” said Applegate. “Luckily most people are going to be vaccinated.”


According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, only 64% of Montana is considered vaccinated. Missoula County was listed at 71% vaccinated in 2020 while some counties, such as Ravalli, were only 47% vaccinated.

“People who do get that vaccine are really highly protected,” said Applegate. “It's really our best weapon in combating these outbreaks.”

If measles were to occur in the local population, Applegate said the response would be quick and intense, not unlike the response to Covid before the Legislature hindered the options used by local health departments to combat outbreaks or pandemics.

Still, Applegate said options remain and the response would be organized.

“If it happened in Missoula, I wouldn't be working on this alone,” he said. “This would be like a Covid response. It would be organized with people on the ground. There would be screening and contact tracing. We'd have people making calls and checking vaccine records. But the measles is something we have not seen in Missoula right now.”