So far Southwest Florida has been spared from a measles outbreak in the state but good fortune may not last as children prepare for going back to school.
Public health officials in Lee and Collier counties are advising parents that immunization clinics are open for kids to get required vaccinations or face the “no shots, no school” policy.
Vaccines are free for school-age children at county health departments; students need proof of vaccinations before they can start school next month.
The state has experienced seven cases of measles so far this year, which is the most in 15 years. The surge is attributed to a decline in immunizations among children and an increase in international travel.
Four of the cases in Florida were acquired outside the United States, two were contracted in the state and another was contracted elsewhere in the U.S. and brought into Florida, according to Deb Millsap, spokeswoman at the Collier County Health Department.
The last case of measles in Collier was in 1997 when three children came down with it, which is characterized by a rash, fever and cough. Lee has not seen a case this year or in recent years, said Diane Holm, spokeswoman for the Lee health department.
Capable of producing epidemics, the highly contagious measles is transmitted in the air or by direct contact with an infected person. Once considered a childhood disease, anyone of any age can contract measles can but it is most severe in infants and adults.
Complicated cases can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis, middle-ear infections and death.
The disease had been considered all but eradicated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in 2000 but at the same time, overall vaccination rates started to decline.
The Florida Academy of Family Physicians reports the vaccination rate has gone down five percent among kindergartners since 1998. That means about 10,000 students statewide are not vaccinated presently, the academy says.
Part of the decline can be attributed to alarm about a potential increased risk of autism from the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. A 1998 study published by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in Great Britain made a connection, which caused widespread panic among parents and debate in the medical community between Wakefield’s supporters and opponents. His study was later declared falsified and was retracted by the British medical journal, Lancet, which originally published it.
In Florida, parents can opt for a religious exemption so their children can be excused from immunizations. That was the case for 1.4 percent of Collier children as of this past June, Millsap said. That equates to 794 students out of the 42,856 students enrolled in public schools.
“I am concerned when parents opt to not to have their children vaccinated against measles and other childhood diseases,” said Dr. Joan Colfer, executive director of the Collier health department. “Obviously, the more individuals who are not protected means our community is at increased of disease outbreaks.”
Dr. Todd Vedder, a pediatrician with NCH Healthcare Group-Pediatrics, said Wakefield’s theory has been debunked and nothing in medical literature supports a link between the measles vaccine and autism.
“In my 10 years of practice, I’ve never seen a child go from normal to abnormal right after a shot,” he said.
In Lee County, 664 students were exempted from vaccines last year out of 71,054 students enrolled as of this past June, according to the Lee County School District. That number is expected to go up to 678 students this fall.
Holm said Lee department officials are not concerned about measles but they are watchful.
Earlier this summer, a Lee resident was on an airplane where another passenger was diagnosed but the Lee resident was up to date on immunizations, she said.
“We do receive word when the risk is known to come into our county,” Holm said, referring to notice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
For more information about immunizations clinic schedules, call the Lee health department at (239) 332-9601 or the Collier health department at (239) 252-8595.