Outbreak is taken seriously by schools

Posted 5/19/19

Local public school health officials are staying vigilant after measles, a viral infection known for causing flu-like symptoms and a full body rash, surfaced in East Tennessee …

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Outbreak is taken seriously by schools


Local public school health officials are staying vigilant after measles, a viral infection known for causing flu-like symptoms and a full body rash, surfaced in East Tennessee recently. 

Tennessee has seen five confirmed cases of measles this year, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. At least one of these persons had traveled through the Chattanooga area while contagious.  

“While the investigation of this outbreak is ongoing and we are still monitoring some individuals identified as part of this contact investigation, we no longer have concern about any new cases resulting from exposure to the initial patient,” said Amanda Goodhard, assessment and planning coordinator and PIO for the department’s Southeast Regional Office. 

Still, worries about the spread of measles have prompted national discussions about the virus and whether or not enough children are receiving the recommended measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. 

For several years, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention had seen a national decrease in the number of measles cases. In fact, the CDC said measles was “eliminated” in the United States in 2000. 

However, increases in parents opting out of their children receiving MMR vaccines and increases in the number of people in travel to and from countries where measles is more prevalent are believed to have changed that. 

According to the CDC, 839 individual cases of measles were confirmed in 23 states between Jan. 1 and May 10 of this year. This was “the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1994 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.” 

Symptoms of measles include a high fever, cough, runny nose, red and watery eyes and a skin rash which breaks out 3-5 days after symptoms begin. Rarely, it can lead to serious complications like ear infections, pneumonia and encephalitis (brain swelling). 

Public health officials are urging parents to ensure their children get the MMR vaccine — and urge adults to get it if they never did as kids. They note this is especially important for those who travel internationally, as several countries are experiencing large measles outbreaks. 

The two local school districts — Bradley County Schools and Cleveland City Schools — are continuing to do what they can to prevent the spread of infectious diseases by keeping track of vaccinations and promoting healthy habits. 

“We as a school system want whatever is necessary to decrease the chances of an epidemic in our area,” said Laura Hudson, coordinated school health director for Cleveland City Schools. “Keeping track of vaccinations is a part of that.” 

Both districts have similarly-worded board policies which say students who are entering kindergarten or first grade, those transferring from out of state and those transferring from non-public schools must submit proof of immunizations. 

Students with medical conditions which would keep them from getting vaccines can be exempted from this requirement with a written statement from a doctor. 

A parent may also turn in a signed, notarized form exempting a student from the vaccination if the rules “conflict with his/her religious tenets and practices.” This does not require a written statement from a religious leader. 

“If the parents say it, we can’t ask specific questions about it,” said Tabitha Payne, nurse manager for Bradley County Schools. “It is based on personal belief, whether or not a person is part of a particular religious group or not.” 

Out of the 749 kindergartners enrolled in the Bradley County Schools’ 11 elementary schools for the 2018-19 year, 711 were “fully immunized.” The remaining 38 had incomplete vaccination records. 

Out of the 392 kindergarteners in Cleveland City Schools’ six elementary schools this year, 358 were “fully immunized,” and 34 had incomplete records. 

The 72 Cleveland and Bradley County public school students with incomplete vaccination records included those whose parents had requested religious exemption, those who could not get vaccines for medical reasons and those on “alternative vaccination schedules.” 

Hudson and Payne said both school districts would like to see all students getting all their recommended vaccinations.

“I believe it does really decrease the chances of having an outbreak in our schools,” Payne said. 

Still, schools nationwide have had to grapple with an apparent increase in the number of parents choosing to forego having their children vaccinated, for reasons both religious and otherwise. 

According to the CDC, some measles outbreaks have been linked to religious movements. Outbreaks in New York and New Jersey in 2018 “occurred primarily among unvaccinated people in Orthodox Jewish communities.” A large outbreak in 2014 was “primarily among unvaccinated Amish communities in Ohio.” 

Still, views on vaccination can vary even among people within the same religions. Some — like the Church of Christ, Scientist — leave it to members to decide. A statement on that church’s website said members “are free to make their own choices on all life-decisions, in obedience to the law, including whether or not to vaccinate their children.” 

National concern over childhood vaccinations also comes at a time when many people are choosing not to vaccinate their children for other personal reasons. 

Some of these parents, occasionally referred to as “anti-vaxxers,” have taken to social media to share their views and try to convince others not to vaccinate their children. Some have said they believe vaccinations cause conditions like autism and ADHD, though public health officials have disputed those assertions. 

Local school health officials say they have no way of knowing whether a parent requesting a religious exemption truly has a religious concern — or if they have personal beliefs of another kind. 

Regardless of any idealogical differences they may encounter, school nurses are continuing to help educate children on the importance of habits such as washing their hands often and keeping their hands away from their faces. 

“We’re following the news, and we would take whatever action we need to if a problem did arise,” Hudson said. “But for now, it’s business as usual, continuing to educate everyone on handwashing and such.” 

If a school nurse suspected a child might have measles, the procedure would be to send the child home and instruct parents to take the child to a doctor. Students “get sent home if they have a fever anyway,” Payne added. 

Nurses with both school districts plan to stay vigilant as they wrap up the 2018-19 school year and as they begin to process vaccination records for students enrolling for the 2019-20 year.

Inset Quote:

“If the parents say it, we can’t ask specific questions about it. It is based on personal belief, whether or not a person is part of a particular religious group or not.” — Tabitha Payne


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