As the influx of Super Bowl XLIX fans to Phoenix, Arizona coincides with the rush to stop a new measles outbreak in the state, officials are asking anyone with potential symptoms to stay away from Sunday’s big game.
“The very large outbreaks we’ve seen around the world often started with a small number of cases,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a conference call with reporters this week.
There are currently seven confirmed cases of measles in Arizona and approximately 1,000 people across three counties — including Maricopa County, where the Super Bowl will be played — are being monitored for exposure to the measles virus. Public health officials are working rapidly to isolate and contain the spread of the highly contagious virus, asking anyone who is not vaccinated and may have been exposed to measles to stay home for the 21-day incubation period.
“This is a critical point in this outbreak,” Arizona Department of Health Services’ Director Will Humble wrote in a blog post. “If the public health system and medical community are able to identify every single susceptible case and get them into isolation, we have a chance of stopping this outbreak here.”
State officials have traced Arizona’s outbreak to an unvaccinated family that traveled to Disneyland in California and contracted measles. One of the children “had been to a couple of urgent care facilities,” according to Humble, “exposing 18 kids to the illness.” A Maricopa County woman who developed measles from the family entered a pediatric health care facility before she realized she was infected, potentially exposing 195 children.
Eighty-four measles cases in 14 U.S. states have been confirmed by the CDC since January 1, the bulk of which can be traced back to Disneyland.
Like large amusement parks, major events attracting large crowds from all over the world pose a concern for the spread of infectious diseases and “with at least 1 million people expected to interact at activities this week connected to the Super Bowl and Phoenix Open, Maricopa County officials say they will be on alert for any reports of illness that could be measles-related,” The Arizona Republic reported.
Measles is extremely contagious; it’s spread through coughing or sneezing, meaning an infected person can potentially expose thousands of other people to the virus simply by visiting a crowded area. Just this week, New York health officials said that a college student who rode the Amtrak train from NYC tested positive for measles and was contagious at the time, potentially exposing thousands of passengers. Babies too young to be vaccinated and those with weak immune systems, for whom the virus can be deadly, are particularly vulnerable to measles infection.
Thanks to the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, the virus was virtually eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. But, as ThinkProgress’ Tara Culp-Ressler notes, “experts say that may be part of the problem. Some parents might be skipping out on the MMR shot because they aren’t familiar with the infection and don’t think of it as a serious threat.”
While the national vaccination rate for U.S. kindergartners is 90 percent, according to the New York Times, the number of measles cases has risen sharply in the past few years, a trend federal health officials have connected to the spread of anti-vaccine sentiments.
Every state allows for medical exemptions, but some states, like California, have more lenient vaccination laws that include loopholes for religious or philosophical objections to vaccinations. As a result, the increasingly common and unscientific view that vaccines are harmful to children can be used by parents to refuse vaccines for their kids. As the Washington Post pointed out, despite poor public health statistics in other areas, Mississippi has the country’s highest rate of vaccination — 99.7 percent of the state’s kindergartners were fully vaccinated last year thanks to a strong public health program and mandatory vaccination law.
In California, on the other hand, eight percent of kindergartners did not receive the MMR vaccine last year. In Arizona, there has been more than a 100 percent increase in the number of unvaccinated children since 2000, according to the state Department of Health Services.
The Disneyland outbreak has intensified the debate over vaccination so much that the White House weighed in on the matter this week. “People should evaluate this for themselves with a bias toward good science and toward the advice of our public health professionals,” Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Friday, adding, “the science on this is really clear.”