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After Ohio measles outbreak, JCPS starts offering in-school vaccination clinics

A nurse in plainclothes pinches a students arm with one hand and holds a syringe in another.
Jess Clark
/
LPM
JCPS nurse Michelle Bruce gives an Iroquois High School student his MMR shot.

Jefferson County Public Schools is offering measles vaccines to students at school after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that an outbreak in Ohio may spread to the area.

Students are supposed to have their measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shots completed before they enter kindergarten, but District Health Manager Eva Stone said more than 10,000 JCPS students aren’t fully vaccinated against measles.

She decided to hold in-school clinics after the CDC alerted Louisville officials that residents may have had contact with infected people in Ohio.

“The outbreak in Ohio had some direct ties to Kentucky, specifically they reached out to us in Louisville, to northern Kentucky and some places in western Kentucky,” Stone said.

At least 85 children are reported to have been infected with measles in the Ohio outbreak, which began in October. Thirty-four children have been hospitalized.

Measles is among the most infectious diseases in the world. An unvaccinated person exposed to the virus has a 90% chance of contracting the illness. Signs include fever, cough, runny nose, watery eyes and a distinctive rash. About 1 in 20 children with measles will develop pneumonia, and about 1 in 1,000 children will experience brain swelling and neurological problems. In rare cases, measles is fatal.

“Measles is not a mild illness,” Stone said. She urged families to make sure their children’s vaccines are up to date. So far in Ohio, none of the infected children were fully vaccinated.

According to Stone, 1 in 5 JCPS students are missing at least one required vaccination. About 92% of undervaccinated students are from low-income families and 64% are students of color. Stone told LPM News that’s usually because of systemic barriers low-income families face in accessing health care.

“People think, ‘Oh there’s all sorts of healthcare access in Louisville’ … but on a systems level that’s not the case,” Stone said.

Systemic barriers include lack of transportation, parents not being able to get time off to take children to the doctor, and not having insurance, which is a problem for many immigrant students.

An October 2022 investigation by LPM revealed more than half of kindergarten classes in Jefferson County have vaccination rates that put students at risk of outbreaks of measles and polio. Those schools are more likely to serve low-income students and students of color.

One school, Engelhard Elementary, reported a kindergarten vaccination rate of just 14% against measles.

While many immunizations, including MMR, are required to attend school in Kentucky, Stone said JCPS doesn’t bar unvaccinated students from the classroom. Instead, schools try to connect them with health care providers.

“If we exclude those kids then that is 25,000 kids who aren’t in school. What does that do to their academic success? How does that set them up for the future?” she said.

JCPS isn’t the only district with dangerously low vaccination rates. Many rural counties also have immunization rates below herd immunity for diseases like measles and polio.

Iroquois High School senior Jakisa Wanda rolled up his sleeve for his MMR shot Tuesday, along with his first COVID-19 shot and his flu shot.

“It’s really very important. I don’t need to make anybody here — my friends, my teachers — I don’t need to make them sick,” Wanda explained.

Stone said the district plans to hold more in-school clinics in the coming weeks and months. She held the first one at Iroquois because of the high number of students who are behind on their MMR vaccines.

Iroquois’ student body is more than 80% low income and a majority are Black or Latino. The school also serves more than 400 English Language Learners — immigrant students who may not have had easy access to vaccination in their country of origin.

JCPS plans to hold a similar clinic next week at Marion C. Moore High School. That clinic will only offer vaccines to Moore students. But Stone said she’s working on creating a weekend event in February for any JCPS family to bring children in for their MMR vaccine.

State health officials did not respond to a request from LPM News for more information about the connection between Kentucky and the Ohio measles outbreak.

This story was updated.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.