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State health officials: Outbreaks of three rare diseases not linked

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POSTED February 28, 2014 6:51 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Small but unusual outbreaks of tuberculosis, measles and an extremely rare polio-like disease in several regions across California have set off concerns about the risks of exposure. All the infectious disease reports are actively being investigated, and California health officials say it is sheer coincidence that they arose at the same time.

California Department of Public Health’s chief of the communicable disease control division, James Watt, assessed each of the diseases and offered his tips about how to stay healthy:

• MEASLES: Even as the number of flu-related fatalities is falling in the state, public health officials warn that measles cases are on the rise.

The virus, which is widespread outside the United States, spreads through the air and results in symptoms including a fever, cough and runny nose. Watt said the best way to prevent infection is to get vaccinated.

“People may not realize but measles is quite a common and serious disease that can cause serious complications, so I really encourage people to talk to their doctors about the benefits of vaccination,” he said. “It’s not just a personal decision, but a choice not to vaccinate also increases the risk of disease transmission to other people.”

The California Department of Public Health had confirmed 15 measles cases statewide as of Feb. 21, four in the San Francisco Bay area.

Two people were reported infected with the virus in Contra Costa County, one in Alameda County and one in San Mateo County. An infected college student from the University of California, Berkeley, was one of the Contra Costa County cases, but officials did not say if the other victims were infected by that person.

• POLIO-LIKE ILLNESS: Stanford University researchers announced this week that a very rare, polio-like disease appeared in more than a dozen California children within the past year, and each of them suffered paralysis to one or more arms or legs. But public health officials haven’t identified any common causes connecting the cases.

Stanford University researchers are studying the illness, and doctors warned this week that any child showing a sudden onset of weakness in the limbs or symptoms of paralysis should be immediately seen by a doctor.

Watt added his department routinely monitors for about 80 rare diseases, so such new strains often come their attention.

“At this point we don’t see any cause for concern that this is of significant impact to the public at large,” Watt said.

• TUBERCULOSIS: Sacramento County public health officials announced this week that a Northern California high school student was diagnosed with the lung disease tuberculosis. The Grant Union High School student was reportedly receiving medical care and letters were being sent to parents of students who may have been exposed.

Tuberculosis, also called TB, is passed through the air, usually when someone is coughing, laughing, singing or sneezing. It can also lie dormant for a period of time, so there may be no way to tell how the student was infected.

TB cases are not atypical in California, given that the state is home to many people who travel across the globe, as well as a large immigrant population, Watt said.

“California is really a global crossroads and what that means is we become exposed to health issues that are happening around the world,” he said. “Folks who are concerned they may have been exposed should be asking their doctors about screening and preventative treatment.”

As for how to stay healthy, Watt offered age-old advice: look after yourself.

“We have had a couple of things that happened to pop up around the same time, but what I really want folks to do is take the kinds of commonsense wellness steps that we all know well,” he said.

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