After diagnosing two cases of the measles in one month, the Maricopa County Department of Public Health announced that unimmunized children must stay home from school if they have been exposed to the disease.
The county is in the process of contacting the families of about 195 children who were at the Phoenix Children's East Valley Center in Mesa between January 20 and 21 when an infected woman was treated, said Jeanene Fowler, spokeswoman for the Maricopa County Health Department. The woman recently had traveled to Disneyland, ground zero for a burgeoning nationwide outbreak.
If any of the exposed children have not received two doses of the measles, mumps, and Rubella vaccine, they won't be welcome in class for 21 days, the incubation period of the disease, she said. If a child develops symptoms at school, Fowler said all unimmunized children will be asked not to attend.
The measles, one of the world's most contagious diseases, can survive up to two hours on surfaces or in the air, she said. An infected person starts spreading the virus a full day before symptoms develop.
"The only way we can stop the spread of the disease is to remove unvaccinated people," she said. "Otherwise, the virus just keeps finding new hosts and continues to spread."
Dr. Cara Christ, chief medical officer for the Arizona Department of Health Services, had little sympathy for parents who might be concerned about their children missing three weeks of school.
"Get your [children] vaccinated, and they can go back sooner," she said.
Maricopa County's move is standard public-health protocol, she said. To enroll unimmunized children in school, parents must sign a waiver acknowledging that they may be excluded from classes in the event of an outbreak.
The Centers for Disease Control declared the United States measles free in 2000. But after a controversial study linked the MMR vaccine to autism in 1998, a growing number of parents started opting out and the disease is making a comeback.
The author of the study was stripped of his credentials after an investigation exposed the study as fraudulent, Christ said.
"The vaccine is effective and it is safe," Christ said. "Do not put your children at risk."
Still, some medical professionals advise against giving children MMR. Phoenix-based osteopathic Dr. Jack Wolfson, for example, told 12 News last week that he believes, "We should be getting measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox."
"These are the rights of our children to get it," he said.
In Arizona, the percentage of children who don't get their shots before kindergarten has nearly tripled over the last 10 years, jumping from just 1.4 percent in 2004 to nearly 5 percent in 2014, Christ said.
So far in 2015, the state has confirmed seven cases and is monitoring more than 1,000 people who may have been exposed to measles, according to the state health department. The CDC reports that 102 people nationwide have contracted the disease.
"It's very concerning to us," Christ said. "Measles is not like your common cold. This is something that is going to make your child miserably sick. We're talking deafness, blindness, brain damage, maybe even death."
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