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Will Bans Against Unvaccinated Kids Have an Impact on Sports?

3 Apr, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Seeing an unprecedented rise in cases of measles among an unprecedented number of unvaccinated children, a New York suburb, accordingly, has taken an unprecedented step: banning children who have not yet been vaccinated from public places for the duration of the outbreak.

According to a report from Reuters, Rockland County declared a state of emergency last week in light of 153 confirmed cases of measles (That number has since risen to 157). The county has banned children not vaccinated against measles from public spaces, such as schools and shopping malls, schools, restaurants, civic centers and houses of worship as it grapples with the state’s worst outbreak in decades.

“We will not sit idly by while children in our community are at risk,” County Executive Ed Day said in a statement. “This is a public health crisis, and it is time to sound the alarm.”

Rockland officials said the ban would remain in place for 30 days or until unvaccinated children get the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shot.

Already, the measles epidemic has played havoc with Rockland's spring high school sports schedule, as at least one baseball game has been relocated as a result of the outbreak. According to Athletic Business, The Rockland/Westchester Journal News reports that a scheduled junior varsity baseball game between Rye High School and Nyack High School at Nyack will now be played in Rye. Rye City School superintendent Eric Byrne said the district has begun notifying parents about the potential risks of their children participating in sports events in Rockland County, where the spike in measles cases began in September.

While some parents might consider outdoor venues less of a threat for infection than indoor venues, exposing potentially sick children is a risky proposition and event owners need to be aware of the ramifications. And while the affected area where the ban is small, there is certainly the potential for other communities to use this tactic.

Children who have not been vaccinated against measles because they are not old enough are exempt from the order. Additionally, the order not apply to people who are older than 18; however, unvaccinated adults are being encouraged to get their measles vaccine as soon as possible.

The disease has spread mostly among school-age children whose parents declined to get them vaccinated, citing reasons such as philosophical or religious beliefs, or concerns the MMR vaccine could cause autism, authorities said. CNN has noted the measles epidemic in Rockland has already caused complications, including premature labor and a handful of hospitalizations. The disease is potentially deadly.

“People choosing not to vaccinate have become a global health threat in 2019,” the World Health Organization reported in February. The CDC recognized that the number of children who aren't being vaccinated by 24 months old has been gradually increasing. In addition, the Washington Post reported, there have already been more cases of measles reported in 2019 than there were in the entire year of 2018, and hundreds of children in Madagascar have died from a measles outbreak.

The issue of children not being vaccinated for communicable diseases has long been a sensitive issue in the sports business world. In February, an outbreak in Washington State and Oregon made national news. Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency due to the outbreak three days after officials in Clark County declared a public health emergency. Before that, in  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.

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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