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60 Jail Inmates Believed to Have Measles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 60 inmates in the Orange County jail system have developed rashes and fevers characteristic of measles and have been put in isolation to keep the disease from spreading through the jail population, health and prison officials said Wednesday.

Although only five measles cases have been confirmed by laboratory tests, Orange County’s chief epidemiologist, Dr. Thomas J. Prendergast, said he expects that 35 or 40 of the inmates will prove to have the disease. The others, he said, may be suffering from rubella, or German measles, or from other diseases that produce similar rashes.

Officials say they hope to curb the outbreak by offering vaccinations to incoming inmates, especially those who did not attend California schools where immunizations are required, and those who have not had the measles.

The recent outbreak appears to be a continuation of a two-year measles epidemic that has plagued mostly children in the Southern California area. In Orange County, the disease has killed two preschoolers and more than 350 cases have been reported to the Health Department this year. Last year’s total number of measles cases was 388.

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About six weeks ago, Orange County jails suffered an outbreak of 28 cases of rubella, 26 of which have been confirmed by laboratory tests, Prendergast said. He said the jails have done an excellent job of isolating contagious inmates or the numbers would have been much higher.

“It’s one of the most communicable viral diseases known,” he said.

Dave Riley, manager of the correction medical services division, said officials are not worried about an epidemic.

“We have a few cases that we are watching, and we are working closely with the county Health Department to find ways of making sure the disease doesn’t spread,” Riley said.

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Thirteen men with the disease have been transferred to one-person cells in the Theo Lacy and James A. Musick detention facilities, away from the general population, while three cases have been serious enough to require hospitalization. Riley said measles cases have been reported at all of the county’s jail facilities, including the main jail in downtown Santa Ana.

Until medical tests are completed, health and jail officials say they will not know exactly what type of measles they are dealing with, since chickenpox and even scarlet fever in the early stages can easily be confused with measles.

The county is also considering trying to vaccinate the more than 5,000 Orange County inmates already in custody.

“Because the disease is so communicable, many of the men have probably already been exposed to it,” Riley said.

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The measles vaccine is considered to be 98% effective and one dosage should guard against the disease for a lifetime, although children often get repeated shots as a precautionary measure.

Riley said the county is asking incoming prisoners to voluntarily take a measles vaccination, but only about 30% have agreed to get the shot.


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