Health officials in Arizona attribute the largest current measles outbreak in the United States in part to the refusal of some workers at a federal immigration detention center to get vaccinated.
Authorities have confirmed 22 measles cases in Arizona since late May. All stem from the Eloy Detention Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility managed by the private Corrections Corp. of America.
Pinal County health director Thomas Schryer said that the outbreak probably began with a migrant but that detainees have since been vaccinated. Persuading employees to get vaccinated or show proof of immunity has proved more difficult, he said.
"And so they're actually the ones that are passing along the measles among each other and then going out into the community," Schryer said.
The facility includes about 350 CCA employees and an unknown number of ICE staffers, although Schryer estimates it's about 100. ICE doesn't publicly release staffing levels, nor does it require employees to be immunized. More than 1,200 detainees are being held at the facility.
Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, an ICE spokeswoman, said that the agency is working closely with health officials to monitor detainees and employees and that it instituted several measures to prevent the disease from spreading further, including providing immunizations, referring staffers to nearby clinics, handing out fliers and pamphlets on the dangers of measles and providing masks and gloves.
CCA, the Tennessee-based corporation that operates the facility, said most of its staffers have been vaccinated or shown proof of immunity. Those who have not are required to wear surgical masks or stay home.
Arizona Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ said that the facility has been more responsive in the last few days and that a large number of CCA employees were immunized late last week. "Once they understand how important it is and the outcomes it can have on the community, they tend to cooperate. So we hope to get a cooperative response from ICE," Christ said.
Measles is highly contagious and preventable through vaccines. It was eradicated in the U.S. in 2000. But new cases have emerged in the last couple of years in large part because of people shunning vaccinations based on unfounded fears that it causes autism in children, Schryer said. Measles symptoms are usually mild but can be deadly in babies, who cannot be immunized until they are a year old.
Officials last year said that a massive measles outbreak that erupted at Disneyland in California and spread to several other states was largely fueled by parents refusing to vaccinate children.
In Arizona, health officials are providing free vaccines, sending physicians to the detention center and providing educational outreach to staffers in an effort to contain the measles spread.
Schryer said officials were considering asking the Arizona governor to declare a state of emergency, although Christ said that might not be necessary.
Efforts to encourage immunization have been met with resistance in part because some people underestimate the danger of measles, Schryer said. One staffer spent about four days hospitalized after coming down with severe symptoms, he said.
"To trigger a four-day stay in the hospitals,” Schryer said, “you [have to] be pretty darn sick. It's not really something to play with, and maybe they just underestimated the seriousness of it."
Galvan writes for the Associated Press.