Ladapo criticized over measles memo that contradicts CDC guidance (2024)

With a brief memo, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo has subverted a public health standard that’s long kept measles outbreaks under control.

On Tuesday, after six measles cases were reported at Manatee Bay Elementary in Weston, Ladapo sent parents a letter granting them permission to send unvaccinated children to school.

Ladapo's letter emphasized how contagious measles is and how effective the measles vaccine is in preventing the disease. However, he added that the Department of Health “is deferring to parents or guardians to make decisions about school attendance.”

Ladapo’s move contradicts advice from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is not a parental rights issue,” said Dr. Scott Rivkees, Florida’s former surgeon general who is now a professor at Brown University. “It’s about protecting fellow classmates, teachers and members of the community against measles, which is a very serious and very transmissible illness.”

Most people who aren’t protected by a vaccine will get measles if they’re exposed to the virus. This vulnerable group includes children whose parents don’t get them vaccinated, infants too young for the vaccine, those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons and others who don’t mount a strong, lasting immune response to it. Rivkees estimates that about a tenth of people in a community fall into the vulnerable category.

“… Due to the high immunity rate in the community, as well as the burden on families and educational cost of healthy children missing school, DOH is deferring to parents or guardians to make decisions about school attendance. This recommendation may change as epidemiological investigations continue. Broward County School District is prepared to provide continuous learning to all children at Manatee Bay Elementary School whose parents/guardians choose to keep them at home.”

Florida Department of Health letter to parents

The CDC advises that unvaccinated students stay home from school for three weeks after exposure. Because the highly contagious measles virus spreads on tiny droplets through the air and on surfaces, students are considered exposed simply by sitting in the same cafeteria or classroom as someone infected. And a person with measles can pass along an infection before they develop a fever, cough, rash, or other signs of the illness.

About 1 in 5 people with measles end up hospitalized, 1 in 10 develop ear infections that can lead to permanent hearing loss, and about 1 in 1,000 die from respiratory and neurological complications.

“I don’t know why the health department wouldn’t follow the CDC recommendations,” said Dr. Thresia Gambon, president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a pediatrician who practices in Miami and Broward, the county affected by the current measles outbreak. “Measles is so contagious. It is very worrisome.”

Considering the dangers of the disease, the vaccine is incredibly safe. A person is about four times as likely to die from being struck by lightning during their lifetime in the United States as to have a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Nonetheless, last year a record number of parents filed for exemptions from school vaccine requirements on religious or philosophical grounds across the United States. The CDC reported that childhood immunization rates hit a 10-year low.

In addition to Florida, a total of 20 measles cases have been reported in 11 other states this year, including Arizona, Georgia, Minnesota, and Virginia.

Only about a quarter of Florida’s counties had reached the 95% threshold at which communities are considered well-protected against measles outbreaks, according to the most recent data posted by the Florida Department of Health in 2022. In Broward County, where the six cases of measles were reported over the past week, about 92% of children in kindergarten had received routine immunizations against measles, chickenpox, polio and other diseases. The remaining 8% included more than 1,500 kids who had vaccine exemptions, as of 2022.

Broward’s local health department has been offering measles vaccines at Manatee Bay Elementary since the outbreak began, according to the county school superintendent. If an unvaccinated person gets a dose within three days of exposure to the virus, they’re far less likely to get measles and spread it to others.

For this reason, government officials have occasionally mandated vaccines in emergencies in the past. For example, Philadelphia’s deputy health commissioner in 1991 ordered children to get vaccinated against their parents’ wishes during outbreaks traced to their faith-healing churches. And during a large measles outbreak among Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn in 2019, the New York City health commissioner mandated that anyone who lived, worked, or went to school in hard-hit neighborhoods get vaccinated or face a fine of $1,000. In that ordinance, the commissioner wrote that the presence of anyone lacking the vaccine in those areas, unless it was medically contraindicated, “creates an unnecessary and avoidable risk of continuing the outbreak.”

Ladapo moved in the opposite direction with his letter, deferring to parents because of the “high immunity rate in the community,” which data contradicts, and because of the “burden on families and educational cost of healthy children missing school.”

Yet the burden of an outbreak only grows larger as cases of measles spread, requiring more emergency care, more testing, and broader quarantines as illness and hospitalizations mount. Curbing a 2018 outbreak in southern Washington with 72 cases cost about $2.3 million, in addition to $76,000 in medical costs, and an estimated $1 million in economic losses due to illness, quarantine, and caregiving. If numbers soar, death becomes a burden, too. An outbreak among a largely unvaccinated population in Samoa caused more than 5,700 cases and 83 deaths, mainly among children.

Ladapo was appointed to health department by Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose name is listed above Ladapo’s in the letterhead.

Ladapo’s letter to parents also marks a departure from the norm because local health departments tend to take the lead on containing measles outbreaks, rather than state or federal authorities. In response to queries from KFF Health News, Broward County’s health department deferred to Florida’s state health department, which Ladapo oversees.

“The county doesn’t have the power to disagree with the state health department,” said Rebekah Jones, a data scientist who was removed from her post at the Florida health department in 2020 over a rift regarding coronavirus data.

DeSantis, a Republican, appointed Ladapo as head of the health department in late 2021, as DeSantis integrated skepticism about COVID-19 vaccines into his political platform. In the months that followed, Florida’s health department removed information on COVID vaccines from its homepage, and reprimanded a county health director for encouraging his staff to get the vaccines, leading to his resignation. In January, the health department website posted Ladapo’s call to halt vaccination with COVID mRNA vaccines entirely, based on notions that scientists call implausible.

Jones was not surprised to see Ladapo pivot to measles.

“I think this is the predictable outcome of turning fringe, anti-vaccine rhetoric into a defining trait of the Florida government,” she said.

Although his latest decision runs contrary to CDC advice, the federal agency rarely intervenes in measles outbreaks, entrusting the task to states.

In an email to KFF Health News, the Florida health department said it was working with others to identify the contacts of people with measles, but that details on cases and places of exposure were confidential. It repeated Ladapo’s decision, adding, “The surgeon general’s recommendation may change as epidemiological investigations continue.”

For Gambon, the confirmed cases are already disconcerting. “I would like to see the surgeon general promote what is safest for children and for school staff,” she said, “since I am sure there are many who might not have as strong immunity as we would hope.”

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF. Ladapo criticized over measles memo that contradicts CDC guidance (1)

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Ladapo criticized over measles memo that contradicts CDC guidance (2024)


Ladapo criticized over measles memo that contradicts CDC guidance? ›

Ladapo moved in the opposite direction with his letter, deferring to parents because of the “high immunity rate in the community,” which data contradicts, and because of the “burden on families and educational cost of healthy children missing school.”

What did the Florida surgeon general say about measles? ›

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday defended state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo's response to a measles outbreak in South Florida, which included advising parents that they could continue to send children to class notwithstanding that measles can kill.

Did Florida defies CDC in measles? ›

Florida defies CDC in measles outbreak, telling parents it's fine to send unvaccinated kids to school. With a brief memo, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo has subverted a public health standard that's long kept measles outbreaks under control.

What is the CDC doing about measles? ›

Strengthening vaccination programs

Measles cases anywhere in the world pose a risk to all countries and communities where vaccination coverageA is below 95%. CDC works with countries and global partners to: strengthen national vaccination programs. vaccinate more people against measles.

Is measles a nationally notifiable disease? ›

Measles is nationally-notifiable and cases should be reported to the appropriate health department. Measles cases are reported by states to CDC through NNDSS.

Why is Florida having a measles outbreak? ›

An outbreak of measles in Florida has grown to 10 cases. Most have been linked to an elementary school with nearly three dozen unvaccinated students. The count includes seven cases tied to the school, two in the same county, and one travel-related case in another county. The situation is likely to get worse.

Can you get measles if you were vaccinated as a child? ›

Very few people—about three out of 100—who get two doses of measles vaccine will still get measles if exposed to the virus. Experts aren't sure why. It could be that their immune systems didn't respond as well as they should have to the vaccine.

Who was the surgeon for the measles in Florida? ›

Yet instead of following the well-established public health playbook to curb the outbreak, Florida Surgeon General Joseph A. Ladapo has done the unthinkable: telling parents they could defy health guidance and continue sending unvaccinated kids exposed to measles to school.

Why are measles coming back in the US? ›

This most commonly happens when people who live in the United States visit countries where there are measles outbreaks. Once someone gets measles and returns to America, measles can spread if people in their community aren't up-to-date on their vaccinations.

Is it safe to travel to Florida with a measles outbreak? ›

Even so, traveling to Florida for spring break is safe for people who are vaccinated against measles, Higgins said, because the number of cases is still low enough.

Can you still catch measles after being vaccinated? ›

If a child has been vaccinated, it is highly unlikely they have measles. You should ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from NHS 111 if you think you or your child may have measles. Don't go to the GP or any other healthcare setting without calling ahead first to prevent the further spread of measles.

How bad is the measles outbreak in 2024? ›

Measles cases in 2024

There have been 12 outbreaks (defined as 3 or more related cases) reported in 2024, and 66% of cases (105 of 159) are outbreak-associated. For comparison, 4 outbreaks were reported during 2023 and 48% of cases (28 of 58) were outbreak-associated.

Why am I not immune to measles after vaccination? ›

The person's immune system fights the infection caused by these weakened viruses, and immunity (the body's protection from the virus) develops. Some people who get two doses of MMR vaccine may still get measles, mumps, or rubella if they are exposed to the viruses that cause these diseases.

Why are people born before 1970 immune to measles? ›

In Canada, adults born before 1970 are generally presumed to have acquired immunity due to infection with measles when they were younger. This is due to high levels of measles circulation before 1970. However, vaccination for measles is still recommended for some population groups, even if born before 1970.

What animal did measles come from? ›

The origin of measles is thought to have been zoonotic, evolving from Rinderpest (an infectious viral disease found in cattle, bison, and other hooved animals).

How to prevent measles without a vaccine? ›

Toys and other articles used need to be washed in a strong detergent to prevent spread. Ideally used articles that are not washable should be wiped down with alcohol swabs. Hand washing and covering the mouth and nose while sneezing and coughing can prevent several cases of measles.

What is the big deal about measles? ›

Measles is a highly contagious disease caused by a virus. It spreads easily when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes. It can cause severe disease, complications, and even death.

What's new about measles? ›

A highly contagious childhood disease once eradicated by vaccination has made a comeback. Globally, measles cases increased by 79% in 2023, according to the World Health Organization. In 2022, WHO estimated that measles killed more than 130,000—most of them children.

Why is the measles coming back? ›

Encourage MMR vaccination

After years of declining vaccination rates, measles cases are popping up around the country. And most of the measles cases have been in young children and adolescents who were eligible but didn't receive the MMR vaccine.

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