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The Hill
The Hill
24 Feb 2024
Lexi Lonas

NextImg:Florida school’s measles outbreak points to growing danger amid vaccine skepticism

A measles outbreak at a Florida school this month, which comes in the wake of last year’s in Ohio, is showing the vulnerability of classrooms amid rising vaccine skepticism. 

So far six students from Manatee Bay Elementary School in Broward County have tested positive for the disease, which can be incredibly dangerous for young children, and experts warn more schools should prepare for the worst.

“I think there will be more outbreaks — I think that because there has been a very loud pushback against COVID vaccination and boosters and other vaccines. There’s a whole anti-vax movement,” said Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy School. 

“And so will there be other outbreaks in our schools? Yes. I think the question that we have to ask, overwhelmingly, is whether it poses a risk to the public health and if so, to what extent can we protect against that?” she added. 

At least 8,500 U.S. schools have vaccination rates among kindergarteners that are lower than 95 percent, according to a CBS News investigation, a standard the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is needed to keep students and the community safe.  

Back in the early 2000s, measles was considered eradicated in the U.S. because of the effectiveness and high coverage of the vaccine. 

However, for those who don’t have the vaccine, measles is very contagious and exposure to the illness will likely result in sickness. Measles most commonly reenters the U.S. from foreign travel but can linger if the vaccination rate is not high enough.  

“Florida from all the states should be the one that should be vaccinated … because there is so much tourism that’s part of our lives,” said Claudia Espinosa, co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Florida chapter’s Emerging Infections Task Force. 

And with a global spike of measles being observed, states including Pennsylvania and Virginia have also seen cases.

Last year in Ohio, 85 children, more than 90 percent of whom were not vaccinated, were diagnosed with measles. None died, but almost half were hospitalized.

“This outbreak serves as a reminder that health care facilities, medical providers, and child care facilities serving undervaccinated populations should maintain vigilance for measles and emphasize the importance of timely MMR [measles, mumps and rubella] vaccination,” the CDC wrote in an August report.

Anderson said there is a 21-day period after a measles outbreak to determine if new cases will pop up. After 21 days with no new cases, it is unlikely more would be found.  

The vaccination status of the sick children in Florida is not currently known, but state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo has said it’s up to Manatee Bay parents to choose when it is safe for their kids — vaccinated or not — to return to school. Ladapo, a controversial appointee who has also voiced skepticism of COVID-19 vaccines, has not specifically urged measles shots since the outbreak.  

“The more unvaccinated students you see in a class or a school the greater the risk of a measles outbreak,” said Amira Roess, professor of global health and epidemiology for George Mason University.

Broward County Superintendent Peter Licata told Local 10 News Wednesday that the elementary school has a 92 percent vaccination rate.

“Currently there are 33 of 1,067 Manatee Bay students that do not have an MMR vaccine for various reasons,” Licata said.

Espinosa stressed that classrooms with low vaccination rates are the “perfect settings for increased infections in these kids that are unvaccinated are just gonna propagate more infections.”

“The surgeon general has basically made the argument that they think that the herd immunity rate is so high that they don’t expect there to be any more cases,” Anderson said. “But I think that they’re trying to weigh the school attendance against the potential for children to get sick, and so they’re erring on the side of keeping kids in school.”

As misinformation on vaccines continues to spread online and rates fall, schools with unvaccinated students will have to be prepared for outbreaks.  

“If a school has individuals who have not received the measles vaccine than they need to be prepared for outbreaks and major disruptions in education. They should have school nurses and other staff who are trained in responding to measles and educating families about it. Schools should also expect that as the number of unvaccinated individuals increases then there will be severe cases and deaths among members of the community who are unvaccinated. Providing mental health services will become critical,” Roess said.