As of Friday, more than 270 people across the country, mostly small children, have been infected with measles. The highly-contagious disease, which was declared eliminated as a major public health threat nearly 20 years ago, now has outbreaks in 10 states, including Washington and New York.
Medical professionals, both nationally and locally, stress the importance of making sure your children’s vaccinations are up to date, especially the critical measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.
“Not only is the MMR vaccine a required vaccine in the state of Virginia, but it is also critical in childhood health,” said Kendra Robinson, clinical director at Olde Town Medical Center. “I know there are websites that may say one thing or another, but if parents have doubts, I encourage them to speak with a pediatrician, seek professional opinion and insight, and any one of them will stress the importance of this vaccine."
Kindergartners across America generally get vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, there is a trend in some communities where children do not receive these life-saving vaccines. The CDC considers any school whose vaccination rate drops below 95 percent “at risk” in the event of an outbreak.
In the most recent immunization survey of students in schools across the area, there were four medical exemptions and 14 religious exemptions among kindergartners in the W-JCC school division. In neighboring York County, 11 kindergartners were exempted from vaccinations; one medical exemption and 10 religious exemptions.
Two schools in York County and three in the W-JCC School Division fell below the CDC’s 95 percent “at risk” threshold for kindergartners, with J. Blaine Blayton Elementary having the lowest vaccination rate for kindergartners at 87.5 percent.
Though vaccination rates are higher in local middle schools — none were lower than 97 percent — the dip in vaccination rates at the elementary school level only began around 2013 or 2014, depending on the school, and likely has not reached the middle school level yet.
Virginia only allows medical or religious exemptions for vaccinations for students attending public school in the commonwealth. The Virginia Department of Health conducts a survey of kindergarteners and sixth graders in the fall semester each year.
“When vaccination rates drop below a certain point, it puts all of the other children at risk,” Robinson said. “A lot of these diseases had been completely eradicated because of past vaccination efforts and if you don’t vaccinate, you risk them returning, often worse than before.”
According to Karen Gangitano, the Immunization Action Plan coordinator with the Peninsula Health Department out of Newport News, that is a result of one of the key purposes of vaccination programs: herd immunity.
“If one person in the community is not vaccinated, it may not cause issues because everyone else is vaccinated, but when large numbers are not vaccinated, that's when problems occur, when outbreaks occur,” Gangitano said. “The important thing about herd immunity is that it protects those most at risk, be it children too young to be vaccinated themselves, people with immunity issues or the elderly. Vaccines protect more than just the person who is vaccinated.”
The CDC recommends all children get two doses of the MMR vaccine, starting with the first dose at 12 through 15 months of age, and the second dose at 4 through 6 years of age. Children can receive the second dose earlier as long as it is at least 28 days after the first dose.
“The MMR vaccine is the best way to prevent several key childhood illnesses. It’s one of the best lines of defense in health, and that's true of any vaccine,” Gangitano said. “Vaccines are the safest and most effective way to protect yourself, your children and also protect others.”
Gangitano also pointed out that the Virginia Department of Health will provide the MMR vaccine, and any other required vaccinations, at any of their medical offices completely free of charge. Robinson said Olde Town Medical Center also offers the MMR vaccine to those who need it.
“We have an immunization clinic. We provide vaccines for not only our patients, so for any parents, just call the clinic to make an appointment,” Robinson said. “We do them every Tuesday. Each vaccine is just $5 if the child is uninsured, and otherwise insurance pays for them.”
In the U.S., before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, there were more than 4 million measles cases, with 48,000 hospitalizations and 500 deaths every year.
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.