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Public health experts raise the alarm in South Florida over a measles outbreak


Public health experts are raising the alarm over a measles outbreak in South Florida that started at an elementary school and is continuing to spread. While school staff and doctors respond to a growing number of cases, critics say the state's surgeon general is saying things that puts students at risk of the highly contagious illness that was actually considered eradicated two decades ago. Reporter Kate Payne is with member station WLRN and is with us now to tell us more about all this. Good morning.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So, Kate, you were telling me earlier that the CDC considered measles eradicated in 2000. So how did this get out of hand?

PAYNE: That's right. So this outbreak began earlier this month at a school in suburban Broward County, about 20 miles west of Fort Lauderdale. So far, there have been a total of nine confirmed cases of measles in Florida with this outbreak, six are all at that one school, Manatee Bay Elementary in the city of Weston. We also now have a confirmed case in Central Florida in Polk County. And one of these cases is a child who's under the age of 5. That's especially concerning because, according to the CDC, children younger than 5 are more likely to suffer from complications.

MARTIN: And public health experts have been criticizing Florida's surgeon general for not following standard CDC guidance on measles outbreaks. So what is it that he's saying that is causing this concern?

PAYNE: So Joseph Ladapo is Florida's top health official, the surgeon general. He was appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis. And he has consistently undermined vaccination efforts, including the COVID vaccine. And Ladapo told Broward County parents that it's their call whether to send their kids back to the school where the outbreak started, regardless of their vaccination status. He also did not direct parents to get their kids vaccinated, and that goes against the standard practices set by the CDC, which says that unvaccinated kids must stay home for three weeks after they've been exposed in order to keep them safe. Rana Alissa is with the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and she says she was alarmed by the surgeon general's guidance.

RANA ALISSA: It's very disappointing to realize that our surgeon general is basically misleading the parents. It should not be left to parents' choice. It should be the recommendation actually not to let your child go to school if they are unvaccinated.

MARTIN: So remind people who may not be familiar with this. Why are health experts worried?

PAYNE: So measles is a serious disease that can be life-threatening. It's incredibly easy to spread and can lead to serious complications. One in 1,000 cases develop encephalitis, which is swelling of the brain. That can leave the child deaf or with an intellectual disability. And about 1-3 out of every 1,000 cases are fatal.

MARTIN: So, Kate, before we let you go, how many people in this South Florida community have had their shots?

PAYNE: So as far as students, the most recent state data shows that 92% of kindergartners in Broward County are vaccinated. It's about the same statewide. And that's less than the 95% that the CDC says is needed to have herd immunity to prevent outbreaks like this one. Florida law does require students to get the vaccine against measles and a number of other shots before they enroll in school, but parents can opt out for religious or medical reasons. And we've seen vaccine uptake rates slip in recent years, not just in Florida.

MARTIN: OK, that is WLRN reporter Kate Payne. Kate, thank you.

PAYNE: Thank you.

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Kate Payne