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CUSD reacts amid vaccine decline, measles outbreak

While no cases of measles have been reported in Claremont, local educators and physicians are worried about a potential resurgence of an infectious disease once considered to be eradicated.

The concern arose after the Disneyland measles outbreak in December of 2014. In its wake, 131 people have been infected in California, according to an Associated Press story earlier this week. The Centers for Disease Control says most of those who have fallen ill were unvaccinated.

In 2000, the CDC proudly reported that measles had been eliminated in the United States. Claremont pediatrician Glen Miya clarifies: This doesn’t mean there were no cases of measles in the United States but that none had originated in the country.

Fourteen years later, the nation is experiencing the largest number of measles cases in two decades. This situation has been linked to a controversial trend in which parent are eschewing vaccinations for their children. Their decision to request a personal belief exemption (PBE) with regards to inoculation generally based on a conviction or concern that vaccines may lead to autism.

In some California districts, according to a February 9 NPR article, fully half of all students have a PBE. In Claremont, that number is less than 2 percent and going down, thanks to an educational effort on the part of the district.

On February 19, Superintendent Jim Elsasser circulated a summary of the steps that have been taken by CUSD in response to the measles outbreak. The process began with a thorough review of student immunization records at all school sites.

Parents of students who were missing one or both of the recommended measles vaccinations—and who did not have a PBE on file—were notified in writing and by phone that they must submit proof of up-to-date measles vaccinations if they wished their child to continue attending school in the district.

One COURIER staffer was given a deadline of February 29 to resolve a vaccination matter and then, on February 26, was called to the school office to show proof or the child could not remain at school.

There are some exemptions, the district release notes: “A few exceptions will be made …on behalf of homeless and foster children without records, as well as children who have a doctor’s appointment behind the exclusion date.”

On Wednesday, February 25, at the suggestion of the California Health Department and the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the district sent out an informational email to parents and staff members. It described the symptoms of measles and preventative measures, including vaccines, that have been found to protect children and schools against the disease.

The district is happy to report that the number of unvaccinated students is beginning to wane, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Mike Bateman said. 

On February 19, it was reported that there were 111 students in the district who hadn’t received at least one dose of the measles vaccine. As of present time, the total number of students who haven’t had at least one measles vaccine has dropped to 105.

The majority of the unvaccinated students have personal belief exemptions, while two are foster children with lost immunization records, Mr. Bateman shared. Another two kids who are missing both doses of the vaccine are medically fragile students, one in attendance at Danbury and another at Claremont High School.

Sumner Elementary School teacher Joe Tonan, past president of the Claremont Faculty Association, has been troubled by the vaccination situation for some time and, several weeks ago, took to the school board dais to express his concerns. He reiterated these with the COURIER on February 26.

“Immunizations are crucial for teachers who work with children to prevent the spread of disease from the teacher to the students and vice versa,” he said. “I know of some teachers with health concerns who cannot safely be vaccinated. It is up to the rest of us, staff and students, to protect those who are at risk of illness through no fault of their own.”

California is one of only 19 states that allows students to attend school without vaccinations should their families ask for a PBE. Earlier this month, state lawmakers introduced legislation that would make it mandatory for kids to be fully vaccinated before going to school.

Claremont pediatrician Glenn Miya is one of the many physicians across the country who assert the vaccine/autism link is nonexistent. He has spoken out on the danger of avoiding vaccinations in an interview with the COURIER and onscreen in a segment on Time Warner Cable’s “Local Edition.”

Parents who continue to believe that vaccinations and autism are related should know that the study on which this assertion was based has long been debunked, he emphasizes. What has not been debunked is the opposite link.

“Since rates of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine went down in the UK, mumps came back as well as the measles. Here in the United States, we’ve already seen a great spike in whooping cough,” the doctor said. “When vaccinations go down, cases go back up.”

Many parents are opting to vaccinate their children but are seeking to minimize autism risk by having their kids wait a bit between shots rather than getting multiple vaccines at once. While it may seem like a thoughtful, middle-ground policy, it is still problematic, according to Dr. Miya.

“There is no scientific evidence to show that a staggered vaccine schedule is any safer. In fact, it puts a child at risk by delaying some vaccines and leaving them vulnerable,” he said. “The standard vaccine schedule has been studied for decades by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The schedule has been designed to give vaccines at certain times in a person’s life to give optimal protection against disease.”

Dr. Miya wants families to understand the severity of a disease that was once brushed off as typical childhood illness.

“Measles is more than a rash. Measles should not be minimized,” Dr. Miya said.   “I distinctly remember that in intensive care, I’ve had one patient who had pneumonia and died.”

People who have contracted the measles can be contagious up to four days before the rash appears, Dr. Miya said.

“The classic signs of the measles are a high fever of up to 104, cough, runny nose and red eyes,” he said. “However, major complications can happen after those symptoms: pneumonia, brain inflammation, deafness, blindness, brain damage and death.”

It is an extremely contagious disease that is especially dangerous for vulnerable populations like infants who are older than 4 months, when maternal antibodies begin to wear off, and younger than one years old, when the vaccine is typically first administered. 

“It has also been shown that for children age 5 and under who contract measles, one out of five has to be treated in the hospital,” Dr. Miya said.

As any parent knows, schools are a natural breeding ground for illness. And measles germs are quite hardy, according to Dr. Miya.

“They are spread by water droplets from sneezing and coughing and can stay viable for two hours on countertops,” he said.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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