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Florida's response to a measles outbreak endangers children, experts say

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's turn now from Michigan to Florida, where an outbreak of measles raises concerns for public health. Ten cases have been reported in South and Central Florida, and experts say the state's response rejects science-based practices and puts children in danger of a deadly disease. NPR's Pien Huang is here in the studio with the latest. Hey, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Bring us up to speed here. How is the outbreak developing?

HUANG: Yeah. So the measles outbreak that we're talking about today - it started in mid-February at an elementary school in South Florida. As you said, there's now 10 cases total. There's nine in Broward County, where the school is, and one case in Central Florida in Polk County. And, Ari, you might say, OK, 10 cases doesn't sound like a whole lot. But the thing with measles is that it's really, really contagious. So if someone with measles walks through a hallway, sneezes, that measles virus can stay in the air and infect someone who walks through the space two hours later. And if someone's not vaccinated, has no immunity to it, 9 times out of 10, if they get exposed, they're going to get measles. So a single case is cause for concern. Ten cases is pretty bad news, especially because the response so far, it goes against standard public health advice.

SHAPIRO: That figure - 9 out of 10 unvaccinated people in that situation would get measles - is really striking.

HUANG: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what you mean by the state's response goes against standard public health advice. What is that advice?

HUANG: Yeah. So measles has been studied for over a century, and there are clear steps to contain an outbreak. Here's Dr. Scott Rivkees. He's a public health professor at Brown University.

SCOTT RIVKEES: If you have an outbreak, you have early vaccination. Try to get people vaccinated within three days of exposure. And for those individuals who are not, those individuals have to quarantine for 21 days.

HUANG: And that's because people can spread the virus even if they don't have symptoms. Now, Rivkees, who you just heard, he's the former surgeon general in Florida. That's the advice Florida would be getting if he was still in the role. But he left in 2021, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis put a doctor named Joseph Ladapo in that role next. Ladapo was part of a group that pushed unproven COVID treatments even before he took on the role. And as surgeon general, he refused to wear masks, and he discouraged people from getting COVID vaccines.

SHAPIRO: And science has told us both of those measures are proven to help prevent COVID infections. So what is Florida's current surgeon general now saying about measles?

HUANG: Well, last week in a letter to parents, Ladapo didn't recommend that kids get vaccinated, and he left it to parents to decide whether to send their kids to school. Dr. Ali Khan, he's the public health dean at the University of Nebraska, and he says that's irresponsible.

ALI KHAN: This is dangerous behavior for public health. That's very dangerous because if you're undermining confidence in public health, including vaccination and public health measures, you are putting increasing number of people at risk of these diseases that we no longer see anymore.

SHAPIRO: I mean, no longer see anymore. Because it is so rare, many people have not seen or experienced measles. What are the actual risks? What are the stakes here?

HUANG: Yeah. So a mild case of measles can involve getting a rash, diarrhea, dehydration. That's already pretty bad. But it can get more serious than that. It can turn into pneumonia. In rare cases, it can even lead to brain swelling, which can cause children to lose their sight or their hearing. And it can also be deadly. So in the U.S., before there was a vaccine, the U.S. was seeing 500 deaths from measles each year. Now, for the last 23 years, measles has been considered eliminated from the U.S. And obviously, we still do see cases of it, but those are usually related to foreign travel. We can continue to keep that elimination status so long as each measles outbreak that we have gets contained within a year.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, is this going to get worse before it gets better?

HUANG: We'll have to wait and see. I mean, in Florida, you know, we're going to watch and see if there are more measles cases and overall in the U.S. as well. So far, there have been 35 cases in 15 states this year. And there probably will be more, especially in pockets where there are lower vaccination rates.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Pien Huang. Thanks for your reporting.

HUANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.
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