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Measles Outbreak Threatens Youth Travel Sports

22 Aug, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

If parents haven’t put a measles vaccine on their back-to-school shopping list, organizers of fall sports need to know about it. A measles outbreak in (at last count) 21 states has officials concerned – particularly since there seems to be more patients than last time.

USA TODAY notes that from Jan. 1 to July 14, 107 people had contracted the disease, federal Centers for Disease Control officials said last week. Measles cases have been reported in 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. According to CNN, the measles vaccine -- known as the MMR or measles, mumps and rubella vaccine -- is very effective. One dose is about 93 percent effective at preventing the contagious disease if you come into contact with the virus. Two doses are about 97 percent effective. It is recommended that children receive the vaccine in two doses: the first between the ages of 12 months and 15 months and the second between the ages of four and six.

This year's outbreak is on pace to surpass last year's cases when 118 people from 15 states and the District of Columbia were reported to have measles.

One troublesome factor in measles is the window of exposure; the incubation period for the disease ranges from seven to 21 days, according to the health department. That leaves plenty of time for an unsuspecting patient to infect plenty of other people.

The sports travel industry went on high alert in 2015 when cases of measles began being reported. In May of 2013, participants in a youth baseball game in North Carolina were warned that a player had been diagnosed with ‘measles-like symptoms’ and that similar symptoms should be brought to the attention of a pediatrician.

Measles tends to spread in pockets of populations where parents avoid vaccinating their children. It may also be brought into the U.S. via unvaccinated individuals, which makes airports and other transportation centers into petri dishes for infection – and causes additional headaches for planners who know kids and even adult athletes will be passing through them. Back in March, for example, it was noted that anyone who had visited airports in Memphis, Newark and Detroit could have been exposed to measles after two international travelers were confirmed to have the measles virus. A 2017 surge in measles cases included outbreaks in 15 of the 53 countries in the European Region, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). That outbreak affected 21,315 people and caused 35 deaths during 2017.

This chart from 2016 shows which states require which vaccines. However, the CDC notes, many states have exemption policies for parents who say they have a religious preference against having children vaccinated, although in some cases, an outbreak of a given disease can allow states to override that. Popular Science recently noted that it is because of anti-vaxxers that measles is on the rise in Europe.

Only time will tell whether the measles will continue to spread. As children and adults get more involved in school and travel sports this fall – a prime time for travel – it’s likely there will be increasing concern, particularly in cases where youth travel teams will meet for tournaments located near theme parks and other places where kids gather.

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 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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