Franklin County dodges measles outbreak, so far

  • ANDREY POPOV

Staff Writer
Published: 3/14/2019 11:39:55 PM

With all the talk about measles outbreaks across the country, some school nurses say they are grateful, but not surprised Franklin County has been spared.

In the 25 years that Susan Mitchell has been a nurse with the Mohawk Trail-Hawlemont Regional School Districts, she said she has never seen a measles outbreak — nor a case, for that matter. She said though there is always a chance for an outbreak, especially when some children attending the districts’ schools are not vaccinated, she’s not worried.

Mitchell said there would have to be a “perfect storm” for an outbreak to happen. For instance, she said, someone traveling outside of the United States would have to contract the disease and then expose one of the unvaccinated children attending the district while they were still contagious. That child would then have to come in contact with the other unvaccinated children in the school.

Mitchell, who is the district nurse leader, said children receive an exemption for two reasons — religious or medical. She said a medical exemption is typically because a child is allergic to a particular vaccine. 

“Those children who are not vaccinated would have to stay home from school from the fifth to twenty-first day after they were exposed — that’s the incubation period, so they probably wouldn’t infect anyone else,” she said. “And either the school or the child’s doctor would report it to the state.”

Mitchell said most of the students who are not vaccinated in her school are not for religious reasons. She said parents need to sign a vaccination exemption for their child each year, and sometimes a child comes in with an exemption one year but by the next, has received his or her vaccinations.

She said the Mohawk Trail-Hawlemont Regional School Districts has been fortunate in that it hasn’t had any recent outbreaks of any of the immunizable diseases. 

“As school nurses, we look at every kid diligently throughout the year,” she said. “We know who is and isn’t vaccinated. It’s not that you don’t worry a bit, but so far, so good.”

Other school districts

According to several school districts throughout Franklin County, the students who have vaccination exemptions are mostly for religious reasons.

Mitchell said Buckland-Shelburne Elementary School has 302 students and 20 have exemptions (6.6 percent), while Sanderson Academy has 162 students and 15 have exemptions (9.3 percent). The high school has 363 students and 11 have exemptions (3 percent), while Hawlemont Regional School has 152 students and 17 have exemptions (11.2 percent). Colrain Elementary School has no vaccination exemptions.

Carol Varner, school nurse for the Gill-Montague Regional School District, said Gill Elementary School has 122 students and five have exemptions (4 percent), while Sheffield Elementary School has 224 students and four have exemptions (1.8 percent), and Hillcrest Elementary School has 162 students and three have exemptions (1.9 percent).

She said the middle school has 242 students and six have exemptions (2.5 percent), while the high school has 203 students with only one student exempted (.5 percent). 

“In our case, anyone who has an exemption, isn’t vaccinated,” said Varner, who has been with the district for five years. “We don’t share who those students are, though.”

Frontier Regional and Union 38 School Districts reported that among its five schools, with a total of 1,538 students — Conway has 135 students, Whately has 134 students, Deerfield has 394 students, Sunderland has 233 students and Frontier has 642 students — 52 students have vaccination exemptions, or 3.4 percent of the entire district. 

Numbers for Greenfield schools, Pioneer Valley Regional School District and Orange schools were not available at press time from those districts and schools, but according to state Department of Public Health records, Greenfield has no exemptions at Four Corners Elementary School, and under 2 percent of students at each of its other schools, including the middle and high schools, have vaccination exemptions. That appears to be the same for schools in Orange, including Ralph C. Mahar Regional High School and Fisher Hill and Dexter Park elementary schools.

Pioneer Valley Regional School District, which includes the high school, Leyden Elementary School, Warwick Community School, Northfield Elementary School and Bernardston Elementary School has not provided the state with its number of vaccination exemptions, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

The state weighs in

Dr. Larry Madoff, director of the Division of Epidemiology and Immunization with the state Department of Public Health, said vaccination exemptions are complicated. 

Madoff said at 5.3 percent, Franklin County is among the highest counties throughout the state and the highest in the western part of the state when it comes to vaccination exemptions. Hampshire County is at 3.7 percent; Berkshire is at 3 percent; and Hampden is at 1.8 percent.

“It’s a real concern to us,” Madoff said. 

He said the good news is that Massachusetts has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. 

“The vast majority, 90 percent, of our residents are fully immunized,” Madoff said. “Overall, the exemption rate here is less than 2 percent, so, in the big picture, that’s good.”

He said there are “pockets,” though, where a larger percentage than the state would like to see are not immunized.

“In order to protect a community, it’s important that a high percentage of its children are vaccinated,” Madoff said. 

He said measles, a highly contagious but preventable disease, is on everyone’s mind right now because there have been so many outbreaks across the nation.

“To prevent an outbreak, 90 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated,” he said. 

Madoff said just because a child has a vaccination exemption, doesn’t mean he or she isn’t vaccinated for measles.

“It could be one specific vaccination they’re allergic to, for instance,” he said. “They could be vaccinated for everything else, including measles. That’s why it’s so difficult to keep track.”

Madoff said transmissibility is extremely high with measles. He said in a school, for instance, if 10 children aren’t vaccinated and someone contracts measles, it’s likely all 10 students will also contract the disease. He said even a small percentage of children who have had the vaccination could contract a mild case. He said about 12.5 percent of the vaccinated population are likely to carry the disease and spread it, if exposed.

“No vaccination is 100 percent effective,” he said. “For measles, the vaccine is given in two doses and is 95 percent effective.”

Children are given the mumps, measles and rubella shot, commonly known as the MMR, twice — first at between age 12 and 15 months, then between 4 and 6 years old. According to school nurses, children must have the vaccination by age 5, when they enter kindergarten.

Madoff said measles was largely eliminated after the vaccine was licensed in 1971, but it has made a return, largely due to those who have not been vaccinated. 

If you are a parent or guardian whose child has a vaccination exemption, I’d love to hear from you to discuss your thoughts on the matter. Please contact me, Anita Fritz, at 413-772-0261, ext. 269 or email me at afritz@recorder.com




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