HAVERHILL — Although there is no immediate threat of a measles outbreak in Haverhill, school health officials say they are taking precautions by ensuring the city's approximately 8,000 students are vaccinated against the disease.

School physician Dr. John Maddox along with health and nursing supervisor Katie Vozeolas told the School Committee Thursday night that more than 99 percent of students have been immunized against the measles. 

As of Thursday, only 52 students are considered under-immunized, they said. Vozeolas said 28 students are still being evaluated as to their immunization status and may have been at least partly immunized with an initial dose of vaccine, while 24 students have legitimate medical or religious exemptions. She said state law allows for specific exemptions and that parents must provide appropriate documentation.

She said school nurses are working closes with primary care doctors and parents to try to bring remaining students into compliance.

Maddox asked the School Committee for support in the event a student's parents are resistant to immunization as that child may have to be excluded from attending classes and provided with an alternative form of education.

Mayor James Fiorentini, chairman of the School Committee, said there may be the potential for a measles outbreak but at this time there is no immediate concern.

"We don't have a problem... we don't want one," Fiorentini said.

Vozeolas said there have been three outbreaks of measles in the country in the last year, including the most recent at a Disney theme park in California. She said that of those 118 cases, most were not vaccinated and ranged in age from 10 months to age 57.

She displayed a map of America posted on the Center for Disease Control website, showing no cases in New England, "yet," she said.

"Yes there could be an outbreak but at this point we are not aware of any," Vozeolas said.

Vozeolas said early symptoms of measles are characterized by a high fever, tiredness, cough, congestion, conjunctivitis and a raised red rash appearing about 14 days after exposure. However, the incubation period can be from 7 to 21 days. 

In the event a student in Haverhill contracts measles, Vozeolas said there is a procedure in place for responding. 

She said school nurses have been instructed to isolate a sick child, dismiss the child, and require doctor approval before returning to school. She said that if a child is proven to have contracted measles, a state epidemiologist would be notified and along with the board of health would determine areas of exposure and what steps should be taken.

School Committeeman Paul Magliocchetti asked if the measles vaccine can protect against possible different strains of measles.

Maddox said the measles vaccine continues to be effective since it was developed in 1963 and that the odds are low that an immunized person can be infected by a new strain. But, Maddox warned that it is important to be vigilant and continue vaccinating people against the measles.

"I agree with what Mayor Fiorentini said that measles are not coming back, but it is coming back," Maddox said. "There needs to be a very high level of immunization around the population in order to keep the one person from creating an outbreak."

At Haverhill High School, there are zero students who are non-compliant, with the exception of two students who have legitimate exemptions from being vaccinated, he said.

School Committeeman Joseph Bevilacqua questioned religious and medical exemptions.

"It only takes one kid at one time to infect a lot of kids and adults as well," Bevilacqua said. 

Vozeolas said some of those 24 students may have partial immunity but will still be treated as having no immunity to measles. She said students who are found not to be properly immunized will have to be excluded from attending school.

CDC's Frequently Asked Questions

How effective is the measles vaccine?

The measles vaccine is very effective. One dose of measles vaccine is about 93 percent effective at preventing measles if exposed to the virus and two doses are about 97 percent effective.

Could I still get measles if I am fully vaccinated?

Very few people — about three out of 100 — who get two doses of measles vaccine will still get measles if exposed to the virus. 

Do I ever need a booster vaccine?

No. People who received two doses of measles vaccine as children according to the U.S. vaccination schedule are considered protected for life and do not ever need a booster dose.

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