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Florida defies CDC in measles outbreak, telling parents it's fine to send unvaccinated kids to school

Amy Maxmen, KFF Health News on

Published in News & Features

With a brief memo, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo has subverted a public health standard that’s long kept measles outbreaks under control.

On Feb. 20, as measles spread through Manatee Bay Elementary in South Florida, Ladapo sent parents a letter granting them permission to send unvaccinated children to school amid the outbreak.

The Department of Health “is deferring to parents or guardians to make decisions about school attendance,” wrote Ladapo, who was appointed to head the agency by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose name is listed above Ladapo’s in the letterhead.

Ladapo’s move contradicts advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is not a parental rights issue,” said Scott Rivkees, Florida’s former surgeon general who is now a professor at Brown University. “It’s about protecting fellow classmates, teachers, and members of the community against measles, which is a very serious and very transmissible illness.”

Most people who aren’t protected by a vaccine will get measles if they’re exposed to the virus. This vulnerable group includes children whose parents don’t get them vaccinated, infants too young for the vaccine, those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons, and others who don’t mount a strong, lasting immune response to it. Rivkees estimates that about a tenth of people in a community fall into the vulnerable category.

 

The CDC advises that unvaccinated students stay home from school for three weeks after exposure. Because the highly contagious measles virus spreads on tiny droplets through the air and on surfaces, students are considered exposed simply by sitting in the same cafeteria or classroom as someone infected. And a person with measles can pass along an infection before they develop a fever, cough, rash, or other signs of the illness. About 1 in 5 people with measles end up hospitalized, 1 in 10 develop ear infections that can lead to permanent hearing loss, and about 1 in 1,000 die from respiratory and neurological complications.

“I don’t know why the health department wouldn’t follow the CDC recommendations,” said Thresia Gambon, president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a pediatrician who practices in Miami and Broward, the county affected by the current measles outbreak. “Measles is so contagious. It is very worrisome.”

Considering the dangers of the disease, the vaccine is incredibly safe. A person is about four times as likely to die from being struck by lightning during their lifetime in the United States as to have a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction to the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine.

Nonetheless, last year a record number of parents filed for exemptions from school vaccine requirements on religious or philosophical grounds across the United States. The CDC reported that childhood immunization rates hit a 10-year low.

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©2024 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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