As the mumps outbreak spreads in Northwest Arkansas, state officials should do more to minimize the disruption in the education of children who have not been vaccinated against disease, some lawmakers said Monday.
At a meeting of the state House and Senate Public Health committees, the legislators complained about the state's policy of excluding unvaccinated children from school during an outbreak.
They said it's unfair that previously unvaccinated children can return to school immediately after receiving a vaccine, even though the vaccine doesn't become fully effective until two weeks after it's administered.
"Right now it seems like a punishment to these [unvaccinated] kids," Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, said at the meeting. "It's not supposed to be."
Health Department Director Nate Smith said the department has been following guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in trying to contain the virus.
Those guidelines call for unvaccinated children to be excluded from schools where an outbreak has occurred until 26 days after the last instance of a person developing the swollen salivary glands often caused by the disease.
Students who develop symptoms are excluded until the disease is not considered contagious -- five days after they develop the swollen glands.
"We're not making this stuff up as we go along," Smith said. "We're using what has been successful in many other settings."
Spread through saliva and often transmitted when infected people cough or sneeze, mumps can cause swollen salivary glands, body aches and other mostly mild or moderate symptoms. But it can lead to rare complications such as deafness or brain inflammation, particularly among adults.
Most people recover within a few weeks.
The Health Department announced Aug. 31 that at least 20 cases of the mumps had been confirmed or were strongly suspected in Springdale.
By Monday afternoon, the number of suspected or confirmed cases had grown to 98. Most were in Springdale, but the department had confirmed cases in Rogers and potential cases in Fayetteville, Huntsville and West Fork.
Officials at Fayetteville's Butterfield Trail Elementary School were notified late Sunday that a student had contracted the virus, the first in the district, according to a district statement. Custodians there did an extra cleaning before school Monday.
Smith said Monday that the outbreak appears to have been started by an out-of-state resident who caught the disease in Iowa, then traveled to Arkansas and passed it on to another adult before the virus spread to children.
Arkansas children are required to receive recommended vaccines against mumps and other diseases, although they may obtain exemptions on medical, religious or philosophical grounds.
Even those who have been fully vaccinated can still catch the disease, and so far all of the children who have caught the virus were vaccinated, Smith said.
But he said vaccinating at least 86 percent of the students in a school is considered to be essential in stopping the spread of the virus.
Among those who have been fully vaccinated, it's thought to be 88 percent effective in preventing infection, he said.
Unvaccinated children are excluded from school because they would otherwise be highly likely to catch the mumps and pass it along to other children, Smith said. Excluding them will help control the spread of the virus more quickly, he said.
Those who have been vaccinated have some protection right away, although the vaccine takes two weeks to reach full strength, he said.
State Rep. Micah Neal, R-Springdale, said that about 1,500 students in the Springdale School District have exemptions from the vaccine, giving the district a vaccination rate of about 93 percent.
He said he heard from one parent who felt "bullied" into getting the immunizations for her children. Without the vaccines, he said, one of them wouldn't be able to play in the school band, and another one wouldn't be able to participate in the school play.
"Something needs to be done to make sure these kids have an adequate education," Neal said. "I don't believe sending them home for four to six months is going to give them an adequate education."
Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, said the Health Department appears to be using the threat of removal from school during the outbreak as a "scare tactic" to have parents immunize their children.
Schools should make an option available for children to attend school together, separated from other students, she said.
Smith said that could be an option and that he would consult with the Department of Education on other ways to make it less likely that children's education is disrupted.
Parents who obtain vaccine exemptions sign a form warning them that their children will be removed from school during an outbreak, he said.
State Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, said parents who signed the forms shouldn't be surprised when their children are removed from school.
And just because a child doesn't have an exemption doesn't mean the child is up to date on required immunizations, she said.
"There are a lot of people that may not have an the exemption, that are not compliant," Irvin said.
Iowa has had a monthslong mumps outbreak, with more than 550 cases from January through the end of July, according to the August disease report from the state's Center for Acute Disease Epidemiology.
Arkansas Epidemiologist Dirk Haselow said the Health Department was notified quickly after the traveler from Iowa was diagnosed in Arkansas.
The department interviewed that person and ensured that all the people who were in close contact with that person and the Arkansas adult who was infected were up to date on their vaccinations.
A Section on 09/13/2016