Measles: Not Fully Protected

Question: How protected are the children in Florida and Pinellas County against a measles or other childhood disease epidemic? The answer is somewhat but not enough. Despite warnings and a quite active local campaign neither the state nor Pinellas County has vaccination rates of 90 percent, the goal needed to get the “herd” immunity, the point at which an epidemic doesn’t have enough victims to feed upon.

The Center for Disease Control issued a warning about the possibility of a widespread measles epidemic and the Florida Department of Health followed up by urging that parents get their children vaccinated as soon as possible. Locally, the county health department has been working on the issue for over a year after developing a working coalition of over 40 medical, social service and school interest groups.

Here’s how we stack up. We’re talking statistics and sampling, which can get kind of confusing, but nonetheless provide a vaccination snapshot of various age groups. The local group, called PITCH (Pinellas Immunization Team for Community Health), is focusing on two-year- olds and kindergartners. By the way, I work with PITCH as a citizen volunteer.

Two years ago the two-year-old vaccination rate was at 75 percent. It jumped to 85 percent for the next year and then dropped to 81 percent this past year. The state rate is 85 percent. Kindergartners are nearly at the 90 percent level with an 89 percent figure, but the goal for them is 94 percent. Vaccine rates are highest for those children connected with any of the many social services in the county. It’s the private sector that has the lowest rates.

The immediate concern is measles because there is an epidemic in California which started in Disneyland and has spread to other

states. If a Disneyland outbreak causes such an outbreak consider what would happen at Walt Disney World. Disneyland covers 300 acres with less than a handful of attractions. Disney World covers 43 square miles and two handfuls of attractions. Attendance at just the Disney attractions are 20 million versus 40 million.

Measles likes those kind of high density venues. It is highly contagious because it spreads through the air and can survive on surfaces and in the air for days. Children can get seriously ill, even die, from measles. It was nearly eradicated in 2002, but the work of the anti-vaccination group (particularly in California) and a policy of easy exemption for school admissions has reduced the number of vaccinated. That has brought on a spike not only in measles but mumps.

These were diseases of my childhood and risks we accepted because we couldn’t do anything about them. Measles, mumps, rubella, scarlet fever, polio, meningitis, chicken pox, influenza, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus (lock jaw), Hepatitis A and B, and pneumonia were among them. Measles, mumps and rubella were so widespread that health experts feel that people born before 1956 probably have immunity from many of these because of their exposure.

None of these diseases were pleasant and often required quarantines. There were deaths and chronic side-effects for some of those who survived. Now vaccinations offer protections against all of these (except scarlet fever which has faded out; it still occurs but can be treated with antibiotics). Vaccine risks are minimal. It’s a proven scientific fact. And, no, vaccines are not 100 percent effective, but they can prevent epidemics. Again, no, pharmaceutical companies don’t make money off vaccines. They make money off of sick people who have to use the newly developed medicines that protect us when we aren’t vaccinated.

As for the quarantines, I read an article a couple of weeks ago about Arizona where 1000 people in three counties were exposed to measles. School and health officials were barring non-vaccinated children from school and were trying to restrict those exposed to their homes – don’t visit the doctor, don’t go to grocery stores or shopping malls and so forth. That’s the old-fashioned quarantine that I recall. If national epidemics do occur this will be the remedy. I don’t think the public’s ready for that. But, ready or not, that’s the route we’ll go if vaccine rates don’t begin to climb.

Some medical doctors are calling for mandatory vaccinations with exemptions only for medical or very specific religious reasons (definitions are very loose now). Some are even calling for suing parents whose unvaccinated children become seriously ill from a disease or cause other children to be seriously ill. The argument is that these decisions affect the health of the whole community. Those measures may be extreme, but are being talked about seriously. It’s even being discussed by 2016 presidential candidates.

The point is that dangerous diseases can be eradicated because of vaccines. Think smallpox. Or polio in most of the world. Or ask people in underdeveloped countries (with the exception of those controlled by radical Islamists who shoot social workers for offering vaccines) where the diseases outpace the availability of vaccines and drugs to treat them. As a point of information, locally vaccinations are available at doctors offices and the county health department (sometimes free) and, for some adult needs, at local drug stores.

More detailed information is available at the health department or doctors’ offices. In addition, if you are a member of a club or organization in Pinellas County and need speakers to address this issue, PITCH can provide them. I’ll even help make the arrangements. Contact me at wnorthrop@tampabay.rr.com.

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Somethin’ on My Mind is an opinion column written by Bill Northrop. It does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Gabber publishers, staff or advertisers.

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