Measles on the Map

Measles came to Martha’s Vineyard earlier this month. An off-island child, presumably here on vacation, was taken to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and diagnosed with it.

Before, measles was deep background for most of us. Now it occupies a prominent place on the psychic maps of both individuals and the community at large. A month from now, it will have shrunk considerably, but it will be a while before it seems as remote as it did in May.

Aside: For more about psychic maps, see “My Martha’s Vineyard.” Regular maps show places the way they look to a hypothetical objective observer. My psychic map shows places the way they look to me. Each person has his or her own unique psychic map. Communities have them too. Martha’s Vineyard looms very large on the psychic map of Martha’s Vineyard.

Immediately upon diagnosis, the hospital, island health officials, and the state Department of Public Health (DPH) went on red alert.

The Vineyard Gazette and the Martha’s Vineyard Times have now told us just about everything we wanted to know about measles, with all the breathless excitement that accompanies incoming blizzards and hurricanes.

Ditto social media, notably Facebook, particularly the Islanders Talk group (4,500+ members), which is where I learned what was going on.

The kid with measles visited the  Airport Laundromat in Friday, June 12. I was there a week later. That was probably as close as we got.

The kid with measles visited the Airport Laundromat on Friday, June 12. I was there a week later. That was probably as close as we got.

The DPH ascertained where the child had gone when she was probably infectious but no one knew she had measles, Monday, June 8, through Wednesday, June 17. The locations included three libraries (West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah), the Airport Laundromat, and Sharky’s Cantina and Ryan’s Family Amusements, both in Oak Bluffs. Dates and times were given for each location. Each one was notified, and they in turn did what they could to notify whoever had been there at the same time the child was.

On the subject of measles, it seems, my own psychic map was stuck in the late 1950s, which is when I had measles. As noted in a blog post earlier this month, I just turned 64. I had measles when I was 7. Measles was not a big deal then. Nearly every kid got it sooner or later. Yes, we had to stay out of school and away from the adults in the family who hadn’t had it, but it wasn’t till adulthood that I learned just how serious measles could be. The phrase “childhood diseases” made it sound like a routine rite of passage, and that’s what it pretty much was.

Not anymore. The responses, official and unofficial, to this one kid with measles took me by surprise. I caught up on some facts I’d heretofore managed to miss.

  • The first measles vaccine was licensed in 1963. An improved version, licensed in 1968, is the one in use today. It’s usually combined with vaccines against mumps and rubella (known as German measles when I was a kid) in the MMR vaccine.
  • Measles was declared “eliminated” in the U.S. in 2000.
  • Dr. Richard Partridge, who diagnosed the case at the M.V. Hospital’s emergency room, said, “I’ve been practicing 23 years, and never seen a case of measles.” He’s based at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Mass., and does a rotation on the Vineyard and Nantucket every month.
  • Measles has been making a comeback in the U.S., with 668 cases reported in 2014, the highest number since 2000. These cases came from 27 different states. (The Centers for Disease Control estimate that before the vaccine were were about three to four million cases of measles in the U.S. every year.)

Considering how infectious measles can be, the apparent fact that the 668 cases didn’t spread out of control can probably be attributed to widespread vaccination and the concept of “herd immunity.” This is somewhat complicated, but the gist is that if a certain percentage of the population is vaccinated, those who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons are protected against the disease. Because measles is “highly transmissible” — it spreads fast, and starts spreading before the telltale rash appears — the percentage required for herd immunity is estimated at 90% to 95%.

Which brings me to what were to me the most surprising facts of all:

  • Martha’s Vineyard elementary schools have some of the lowest vaccination rates in Massachusetts.
  • At 26.4%, the West Tisbury School’s “exemption” rate is the second highest in the state, according to a study released last year by the state DPH. That translates to about 75 un- or under-vaccinated kids. The exemption rates at the Chilmark School and the charter school, both too small to be included in the state study, are similar.
  • Exemptions can be granted for medical or religious reasons. Medical exemptions must be approved by a doctor and renewed every year. Religious exemptions don’t have to be approved by anybody and are good for life.
  • The state average for religious exemptions is 1%, but for the seven schools surveyed in Dukes County the religious exemption rate is 18%. Most of the exemptions in West Tisbury are for religious reasons.

This is curious. Yes, there are religions that frown upon or proscribe medical intervention, but they are not widely practiced in West Tisbury. I suspect that the religious exemption is serving as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” loophole for parents who for whatever non-medical reason don’t want their children vaccinated.

Yes, I’m aware of the roiling controversy about vaccinations in general, but no, I’m not going to go there. What intrigues me about all this is how we as individuals and as a community assess risk and decide what to do about it. For instance —

  • Vaccinations carry some risk. They don’t work for everybody, and for some they may do harm.
  • As long as measles remains a remote hypothetical possibility, the risks associated with vaccination loom large and larger. Once measles appears on the psychic map, those risks seem manageable.
  • Parents who consider vaccines unsafe don’t think twice about putting their kids in the car and driving down-island, up-island, or off-island.
  • As long as measles remains a remote hypothetical possibility, those who are vaccinated or otherwise immune don’t think much about those who aren’t. “It’s their right, it’s a free country,” etc., etc., etc. Once measles appears on the psychic map, live-and-let-live goes — not quite out the window, but it’s headed in that direction.

In other words, it’s much easier to tolerate something that poses only a remote, hypothetical threat.

At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, the more familiar, worthwhile, and/or unavoidable something is, the better able we are to deal with the very real risks. This freakout about measles would have been unimaginable when I was a kid.

So if a reasonably safe, highly effective inoculation against Lyme disease — which isn’t spread person-to-person but is widespread on Martha’s Vineyard — became available, would those who oppose vaccinations in general make use of it?

Some supporting info:

Centers for Disease Control FAQs on measles

Low Vaccination Rate Prevalent on Island,” by Alex Elvin, Vineyard Gazette, February 12, 2015

Measles Diagnosis Exposes Martha’s Vineyard’s Vulnerability,” by Barry Stringfellow, Martha’s Vineyard Times, June 25, 2015 (posted June 24)

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to Measles on the Map

  1. Susanna: Great blog, informative and thorough. I had measles when I was about seven, and my seriously poor eyesight dates from then. I can remember a miserable eternity — a week or two — lying on the couch having to take a foul tasting medicine. Itching, hurting, hot, and miserable. Many thanks for a blog I hope Vineyarders who haven’t allowed their kids to get vaccinated will pay attention to. (ed: which?)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I really hope the non-vaccinating parents think hard about it. I’m struck by something Matt Poole, Edgartown health agent, told the Martha’s Vineyard Times: that this one case of measles had taken up considerable state and local resources. I inferred that this might not have been necessary had the Vineyard been at the “herd immunity” level of vaccination.

      My recollection of my own case of measles is that it was relatively mild. Also it was right around Christmas. I had chickenpox on Christmas when I was 5, mumps on Christmas when I was 6, and measles on Christmas when I was 7. That was the end of it. I never had rubella, which we called German measles in those days. I hadn’t thought of connecting it to my lousy eyesight — and it probably wasn’t. I didn’t have to get glasses till two years later, and my near-sightedness was enough like my mother’s to make me think it was probably hereditary.


  2. Sara Crafts says:

    You hit the proverbial nail on the head here, Susanna. If an inoculation against tick-borne illnesses were available, would the Island reject it in the same percentages? I also think not. There are some people who become hysterical at the sight of a tick on them or their pet. There are long-time Island dwellers, like myself and I’m guessing yourself, who are reasonably sanguine but nonetheless watchful, as we all know someone for whom Lyme disease has become horribly disabling. And tests for Lyme are notoriously not accurate.
    But measles? My brother caught measles from me in the form of five spots on his chest. Period. I had measles for three miserable weeks, spiking a temp at times over 104 and have always felt lucky for not having had residual damage. Measles is a bad disease, and the residua is often way worse than for Lyme.
    Worse than copping out for “religious” reasons (that I highly doubt in many cases) the non-inoculated folks put other people at risk. That truly doesn’t seem right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A friend from my D.C. days went blind from measles. I haven’t seen that mentioned as a possible lasting consequence, though I do remember that measles patients were supposed to avoid bright light.

      I could go on. Having this happen at the same time as the killings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston — and a report that since 9/11 white supremacists have responsible for twice as many deaths as jihadists, but who are white people more freaked out about? Skimming the comments in the island papers, I see quite a few people are dead sure that if it weren’t for illegal immigration, we wouldn’t have measles in the U.S.

      I also suspect that quite a few of my townsfolk believe everything science says about climate change but nothing of what it says about vaccinations. Ay ay ay.


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