Feb 23, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Florida surgeon general defies CDC measles guidelines during outbreak

Florida's Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo speaking in 2022.

Florida's Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo speaking in 2022. Photo: Alie Skowronski/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo contradicted federal health guidelines on measles this week by not urging parents to vaccinate their children against one of the world's most contagious viruses.

Why it matters: Ladapo's apathy toward measles vaccinations comes as a Florida elementary school is attempting to contain an outbreak and as measles cases have remerged across the U.S.

  • It's also an extension of effort by Ladapo and other conservative officials to undermine federal public health norms and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations — particularly those about vaccinations.

Details: In response to at least six confirmed measles cases at Manatee Bay Elementary School in Weston, Florida, Ladapo told parents in a letter that the state's health department was deferring to them for "decisions about school attendance."

  • He said the state would not make a recommendation "due to the high immunity rate in the community, as well as the burden on families and educational cost of healthy children missing school."
  • Ladapo acknowledged in the letter it's "normally" advised that unvaccinated children without a prior measles infection stay home for up to 21 days after a case is detected in a school — the CDC's guidance.
  • The state surgeon general also did not recommend vaccines to prevent measles despite recognizing their effectiveness at preventing illness

By the numbers: 90% of unvaccinated people will contract measles if they are exposed.

Zoom in: Not only does Ladapo's recommendation run counter to federal guidelines, it also appears to be in discord with Florida statutes.

  • Ladapo noted the state's recommendations may change as its investigation continues.

Threat level: Florida law states that detection of a communicable disease in a school "shall permit" county and state health officials to declare a communicable disease emergency.

  • That would mandate kids who aren't vaccinated against the disease "be temporarily excluded from school."
  • The statute only applies to diseases "for which immunization is required by the Department of Health in a Florida public or private school," though measles is among those diseases.
  • It's also unusual that the state is handling the response to the outbreak and not local health departments, according to KFF Health News.

Zoom out: Despite the statute, Ladapo did not declare an emergency for Manatee Bay Elementary, nor did he mention an emergency in his letter.

  • Around 200 students didn't show up for class on Tuesday or Wednesday, suggesting their parents may have decided to keep them home for online classes over the next three weeks, according to CBS News.
  • The Broward County Public Schools superintendent has said 33 students out of the school's nearly 1,100 — around 3% — were not vaccinated against measles, according to the Miami Herald.

Our thought bubble: The absence of any recommendation from Ladapo is brazen, especially when considered alongside his other recent actions against vaccines.

  • The public health community widely denounced his call last month for a halt to the use of COVID-19 vaccines based on claims debunked by extensive scientific evidence, the New York Times reports.

Context: Ladapo's call follows Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' expanded push against vaccines despite them remaining the most effective tool for preventing many infectious diseases, according to Florida's Health Department.

The bottom line: While a campaign against vaccines rages in the U.S., other parts of the world remain desperate for them, particularly those that can prevent measles.

  • The World Health Organization and CDC warned last year that measles cases and deaths surged worldwide because of a worsening immunization gap that particularly affects kids in poor countries.
  • Global immunization efforts against measles and other preventable diseases were disrupted during the coronavirus pandemic and have yet to fully recover.

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