When Brooke Seal’s newborn son had something wrong with his eye, they brought the seven-day-old boy to the emergency room at B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver.
Thankfully, after several tests and appointments, their infant — who hasn’t been named yet — seems to be fine.
“My husband texted me and said, ‘Oh we should go for dinner to celebrate his good health,’” Seal said.
But minutes later last Friday, she said, health authorities called to let the Langley family know that their infant son may have been exposed to measles while at the hospital on Feb. 1.
“That obviously put a lot of fear into us,” she said. Her son is too young to have been vaccinated — this is generally done at one-year-old — and could catch the disease if he’s exposed.
Seal said she was told that she should not leave the house with her son, and that they can’t have any visitors until Feb. 23, by which time he would have developed symptoms if he had caught the disease. This is actually to protect the community, not the baby, she said, since if he did catch measles, he could spread it to others.
An estimated 400-500 children were exposed over multiple days at the B.C. Children’s Hospital, according to Dr. Althea Hayden, medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health. While most of those people would be immune to measles, VCH reached out to those individuals at highest risk, Hayden said. Due to patient confidentiality, VCH would not comment on Seal’s specific case or whether they had contacted that family.
People who were exposed on Feb. 1 still have a few days until the risk of illness is over, she said. “We are not requiring people to stay at home but we are encouraging them to watch for illness and (…) if they can, to keep their children at home if they are not immune.”
“We have not ordered anyone quarantined, as people were saying, to stay home,” said a VCH spokesperson Wednesday morning. “We have suggested it.”
So now Seal is waiting to see what happens — watching her son to see if he develops measles.
“They told us what to look out for: fever, cold symptoms, red eyes, and then a rash developing a couple of days later.” The family bought two thermometers to keep track of his temperature and have had scares when his temperature goes up or he looks red.
“Newborns have that red splotchy or blotchy skin, so we keep thinking, ‘Is that a rash? Is that a rash?’”
They’re trying to take it one day at a time, she said, and she believes the risk was low since the family wasn’t sitting in the waiting room while at the hospital. But she is worried, since there’s no cure for measles. If the baby has it, he would probably be admitted to hospital and have his symptoms treated, but there’s no medicine to make the disease go away.
“It was definitely scary and overwhelming,” she said.
“We’re just getting adjusted to having a newborn home and then we get this call and we’re told that this little vulnerable helpless infant might be developing a potentially deadly disease.”
There have been nine cases of measles confirmed in the Vancouver outbreak so far. B.C. Children’s Hospital says that if you suspect your child has measles, you should call your family doctor to let them know about a potential measles case and not take the person to the emergency room.
Measles is especially dangerous for babies and young children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Between 2001 and 2013, the organization says, 28 per cent of children under five who caught measles had to be treated in the hospital.
“The thing that we are more concerned about is what we call an acute encephalitis, which is basically brain inflammation that’s caused by the virus. And that can cause permanent brain damage,” said Dr. Anne Pham-Huy, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at CHEO in Ottawa. “That complication tends to occur more often in young children or infants.” People with weakened immune systems are also at higher risk, she said.
Another very serious complication, subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, is a “rare but devastating degenerative brain disease” that occurs years after the measles infection, and is also more common in people who get infected with measles before the age of two, she said.
Seal felt very angry, she said, when she heard her newborn was exposed to measles. “I’m angry at the parents, I think, who make the choice not to vaccinate. Because I think it’s their choice and they actually make that choice and it’s mind-boggling to me.”
Her two daughters have been vaccinated, she said, and aren’t in danger if their brother has measles.
Seal is also angry at the government for not making measles vaccinations mandatory for attending school or travelling outside Canada. Another parent started an online petition last week, calling for mandatory vaccinations to go to school, something Seal supports.
“I think a lot of people think maybe, ‘It’s just a virus and my child can get through it,’” Seal said.
“They’re very short-sighted. They may not recognize or realize the extent to which it can have a negative impact on families right up to fear of death or actual death of infants.”
The situation is making her hesitate about taking her son out into the community during the outbreak after his isolation is done, but before he’s old enough to get his shots.
“Should we be asking our friends, are your kids vaccinated?” she asked. “I was saying to my husband, I think we should be. If they’re not, if there’s an outbreak, we shouldn’t be around them for the first little while of his life.”
For now, the family is watching the baby and hoping he stays healthy and symptom-free until this weekend. “We’re looking forward to Saturday coming.”
— with a file from Sarah MacDonald