As measles has circulated across the U.S. in 2015, Minnesota hospitals were prepared.
“Measles isn’t anything new to us,” says Patsy Stinchfield, a pediatric nurse practitioner and director of infection prevention/control and its outreach arm, The Children’s Immunization Project at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
It’s not new to Minnesota either. From 1989 to 1991, the highly infectious virus spread in outbreaks across the state and much of the country. More than 450 people were infected with measles in Minnesota and many checked into area hospitals, including hundreds who came through the doors of Children’s.
In response to the outbreak, Children’s developed The Children’s Immunization Project — a largely philanthropy-supported community outreach collaborative that promotes age-appropriate immunizations. The project is focused on provider and parent education, public awareness campaigns, public policy and technology-based solutions to achieve on-time vaccination for all.
In the hospital’s eyes, the inception of this project was necessary to prevent future measles outbreaks in Minnesota. But it took some tough lessons during the original outbreak to get there.
How Children’s fought measles in the 1989-91 outbreak
Patsy, who helped manage the major outbreaks at Children’s from 1989 to 1991, was extremely focused on promoting the unvaccinated to get promptly protected — and preventing other patients and visitors from being exposed to the virus in the hospital. Problems only increased in the outbreak when space to house patients became an urgent issue.
As beds across the St. Paul hospital filled with children sick with measles, Children’s was forced to move some children for conditions aside from measles to a ward at nearby United Hospital, part of Allina Health. One Children’s floor was completely filled with patients with measles.
Sadly, two children passed away at Children’s in 1989 from measles-related pneumonia and many more came perilously close. Of the survivors, some left changed forever from damaged lungs or encephalitis.
When another outbreak surfaced in 2011, sickening 19 children and two adults in the state, Patsy again helped manage Children’s response.
And, Patsy says, this is a situation that could easily happen again if we do not continue to clearly reach parents and staff — many too young to have seen first-hand the hazards of measles — about the importance of on-time vaccination.
Following the outbreaks, Children’s Hospitals and Clinics partnered with public health and others to better understand how the outbreak occurred. Children’s made a lasting commitment to educate parents, clinicians and the public about infectious diseases, primarily centered on reducing vaccine-preventable diseases.
To Patsy, this 1990 decision was a no-brainer. She said then and believes now, “As a hospital, we can do more than stand ready with our ventilators plugged in at the time of outbreaks by putting more focus on prevention.”
This began Children’s long-time commitment to childhood immunizations, which helped the hospital answer the questions, “What is our role in helping parents better care for their children?” and “How do we ensure every child gets the best shot at a healthy life?”
The answer to both was simple: communicate the importance of immunizations.
Working together to educate local communities
After the crisis, Children’s staff set out to discuss the importance of immunizations with community members. They found many parents weren’t even aware of the immunization calendar— the schedule of immunizations critical to ensuring children are protected from life-threatening diseases.
They also learned that many clinicians were not checking patients’ immunization status at every healthcare encounter, leading to significant missed opportunities to protect patients from contracting a potential disease.
This made the real problem very clear: The public needed vaccination information in an easily understandable format, and providers needed electronic reminder tools to help them keep up with the ever-changing, complex schedule of vaccines. Without this information, vaccine-preventable diseases could remain an issue for years to come and cause pediatric wards to again over-flow with contagious diseases.
Today, The Children’s Immunization Project continues to work with companies, clinicians and organizations across Minnesota and the country to ensure all children and families get access to necessary immunization information and vaccines.
Children’s, whose mission is to champion the special health needs of children and their families, views this as a critical step to ensuring its community and the entire state of Minnesota is protected.
Find the latest schedules for vaccinations below:
Prepared for the next emergency
When disasters and outbreaks strike, Minnesota’s hospitals and their care teams, including doctors and nurses, therapists and technicians, stand ready to provide complex clinical care and support to our communities.
Children’s is but one example of how Minnesota’s hospitals are creating innovative initiatives to educate the community about measles and other infectious diseases — and to be ready to respond to prevent the spread of disease.
Read more about emergency preparedness here.