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Measles Outbreak Stands to Affect Youth Sports

6 Feb, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Some Exposures Took Place in Sports, Fitness Settings

A recent science satire site offered a headline, reading, “CDC Releases New List of Vaccine Side Effects; Old Age, Grey Hair Top List.” Unfortunately, the problem of unvaccinated children is having a distinctly not-so-funny effect in the Pacific Northwest, where two states have declared medical emergencies as they cope with a measles outbreak. And some of those individuals were in indoor sports settings, meaning large crowds were exposed.

Last week, Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency due to the outbreak on Friday, three days after officials in Clark County declared a public health emergency.

A declaration of a state of emergency allows the state to request medical resources from other states and tells state agencies to do everything possible to help workers who are treating people with measles and trying to stop the spread of the disease – which is highly contagious and is spread by coming into contact with infected individuals (who may or may not be actively coughing, sneezing or breaking out in the recognizable rash). Additionally, the pathogen can remain in the area for several hours after an infected person has left. While many commonly associate the disease with a bothersome rash, it has also been known to cause encephalitis, pneumonia and in some cases, death.

In Oregon, individuals who had visited a Bend trampoline park and a swim and fitness center were exposed. Health officials have identified dozens of other exposure areas in Washington and Oregon, including the Moda Center during a Portland Trail Blazers game on Jan. 11. Ironically, another point of exposure was the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Two cases of measles in Hawaii were confirmed in unvaccinated children who traveled to the Big Island from Washington state, a Hawaii public health official also noted. The family had been exposed to measles as part of the ongoing Clark County outbreak.

Day care facilities and in both states have been a problem area for the disease as well.

A partial list of places where individuals might have been exposed to measles is provided here, although health officials expect the number of infected individuals to climb and therefore, the list to quickly become outdated.

According to USA TODAY, “people choosing not to vaccinate have become a global health threat in 2019, the World Health Organization reported this month. The CDC recognized that the number of children who aren't being vaccinated by 24 months old has been gradually increasing. Some parents opt not to vaccinate because of the discredited belief vaccines are linked to autism. The CDC said that there is no link and that there are no ingredients in vaccines that could cause autism.” Still, the debate continues (with anti-vaccine enthusiasts' arguments fueled by - and scorned by - Internet and social media users.) 

The issue of children not being vaccinated for communicable diseases has long been a sensitive issue in the sports business world. As recently as August of 2018, a measles outbreak had sickened individuals in states including Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. The majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated. 

In February of 2017, an outbreak of chickenpox had caused cancellations of youth sports events in multiple states. And just as with measles, a vaccine exists for the disease. In 2014, mumps (also a disease for which there is a vaccine) hit the NHL and every year, the debate over whether to require flu vaccines fires up.

SDM’s readers weighed in on the issue in two polls recently, coming down on the pro-vaccine side of the line. The majority (nearly 57 percent) believed youth athletes should be required to be vaccinated in order to register for an event, while nearly 70 percent believed flu shots should be mandatory for all participants in youth sports.

And while there’s no good time for an epidemic, this time of year is particularly unfortunate. With basketball season in full swing (including March Madness), indoor venues will be crowded, giving pathogens even more opportunity to circulate. None of the NCAA March Madness official rounds will play out in the PNW, but plenty of other essential games will – giving sports event owners one more thing to worry about. The calendar is also headed inexorably toward spring break and the travel tournament season for youth athletes in soccer, cheer, basketball and a number of other sports, bringing yet more places to bring together children who have not been vaccinated.

Some states are listed as “anti-vaxxer hotspots,” because of the number of NME (non-medical exemptions, or parents who object to having children vaccinated based on religious or philosophical beliefs). The 12 states showing an increase in NMEs are Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah. Six more states — Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Washington and Wisconsin — also allow the exemptions. Within those states, the study also noted 15 metropolitan areas where more than 400 kindergarten-aged children aren't vaccinated:

  • Arizona — Phoenix
  • Utah — Provo, Salt Lake City
  • Washington — Seattle, Spokane
  • Oregon — Portland
  • Michigan — Detroit, Troy, Warren
  • Texas — Houston, Fort Worth, Plano, Austin
  • Pennsylvania — Pittsburgh
  • Missouri — Kansas City

What can event planners do? State-by-state regulations (and exemptions) may govern what tournament directors can specify as their vaccine requirements for participants. Those who want to examine their options should contact an attorney who can investigate and help create any applicable language. It is also helpful to have a policy regarding whether athletes can (or should) attend or participate in sports events if they are exhibiting symptoms of various diseases.

The CDC website includes consumer-friendly information on the measles vaccine. Expect tournament directors and youth sports organizations to start linking to it.

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