Eyes Turn to Malibu as Measles Outbreak Grows

In the midst of a Southern California measles outbreak, with about 75 cases of measles traced back to Disneyland in mid-December, public attention has turned to Malibu and other communities that seem especially poised for disaster should the disease catch a foothold. 

For years, Malibu public school children have boasted an especially low rate of vaccination against measles and many other preventable diseases, since many parents have chosen not to vaccinate their kids, despite the suggestion of doctors. The newest outbreak has made it clear that unvaccinated people are not only highly susceptible to measles and other diseases, but they also play a large role in spreading diseases to those who have received vaccines. 

“I think we’re among the districts that are at greater risk,” said Laurie Lieberman, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Board of Education. 

According to public health officials, a school requires a vaccination rate of around 90 percent or higher in order to prevent outbreaks. Once an outbreak occurs, there is a higher probability of anyone in contact, vaccinated or unvaccinated, contracting the disease. 

According to numbers gathered by The Malibu Times, classes in some Malibu schools fall significantly below that magic number, with kindergarteners and seventh graders submitting especially high rates of vaccination waivers. 

Schools in Malibu reported 57 percent to 78 percent of kindergartners received vaccines for the 2013- 2014 school year. Figures from the city’s six licensed pre-schools (age 2-4) vary greatly, from single digits to 83 percent. Seventh grade students were 75 to 87 percent fully immunized. 

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Lieberman said that overall, rates are still above the minimum threshold throughout the district. 

“I think that the rates… show a decline [of immunization waivers] in the past year, which is good,” Lieberman said. 

This was backed up by data provided by SMMUSD staff. 

“The California Dept. of Education notes that our district-wide waiver rate average decreased from 14.8% in the 12/13 school year to 11.5% in 13/14,” said district spokesperson Gail Pinsker in an email. “The final statistics for 14/15 are reported at the end of the school year. The district is showing a higher rate of immunized kindergarteners entering school this school year, compared to last year.” 

Low immunization rates are worrisome to some parents, including Malibu High mom Julie Friedman-Kagon, who said more focus should be put on vaccinations than on other issues, such as possible toxins at MHS. 

“Rather than primarily focusing on a safe and healthy school environment to be free of toxins, concentrating on parents part in reaching or exceeding California’s vaccination rate average of 95% should unite Malibu,” Friedman-Kagon wrote in a letter to The Malibu Times. 

However, some parents hold that the decision to vaccinate should be something they have control of. 

“Vaccines should be considered one at a time and parents should do their own research to determine which vaccines, when and whether or not to vaccinate at all,” Malibu mom Sarah Kern said at the beginning of the school year. 

The current measles outbreak in California, which is still spreading, has come dangerously close to the SMMUSD, since last week a Santa Monica High School baseball coach was diagnosed with the disease. However, all players on the roster of the baseball team had received vaccinations and the coach did not have contact with other students, so the district did not take any schoolwide action. 

Huntington Beach High School this month was forced to turn unvaccinated students away for a 21-day incubation period after an infected student came to class. 

According to Nicole Stanfield, spokesperson for the Orange County Health Care Agency, this is likely what would occur in Malibu should a student carrying measles come to class. 

“This is a general CDC and statewide guideline, but local health departments are responsible for implementing this guideline and interpreting it for the individual schools,” Stanfield said. 

Pinsker, Stanfield and Lieberman agreed on the importance of educating parents on the benefits of vaccination. 

“I think our greatest role is to educate people about the dangers of unimmunized students and the risks they present to other children and other people in our community,” Lieberman said. 

Part of this education comes from notices sent out by school nurses, like the immunization alert sent to parents by Anne M. Ernst, Malibu High’s school nurse. 

“There are several students in the district who are ‘immune deficient’ due to a variety of medical conditions. Exposure to unimmunized children poses a risk to these students whose immune systems are unable to protect them,” reads the letter. “The more district and community members who are immunized, the safer the environment for these fragile students.” 

Lieberman said that at the end of the day, it’s the parents who need to decide. 

“We don’t have a lot of control over it other than at this point educating people and making sure we find out if anyone is diagnosed with measles or any other disease, and then doing what we are empowered to do under state law to protect the rest of the students and the staff,” Lieberman said. 

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