A serious outbreak of measles last spring has prompted county healthofficials to urge that all middle school students receive booster vaccinations.

The Anne Arundel Health Department is participating ina statewide campaign to halt an alarming increase in childhood diseases that were once considered nearly eliminated through immunizations.

Last March and April, Maryland had the worst measles outbreak in more than a decade. More than 100 cases were reported in the spring, almost all linked to a wrestling tournament at Meade High School in late February.

A Howard County high school wrestler came down with measles several days after competing in the regional tournament in Severn. In the following eight weeks, the highly contagious disease spread among high school students in Anne Arundel, Howard, Frederick andCecil counties.

"The problem was very dramatic," said Edward M. Hirshorn, assistant chief of the immunization division at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Health officials across thestate will launch an intensive campaignnext week to get preschoolersimmunized and schoolchildren signed up for booster shots.

Many children don't receive the recommended vaccines against measles, mumps,whooping cough and polio before age 2, leaving them at risk of catching those common diseases, Hirshorn said.

Nearly all the preschoolers who have come down with measles in the past three years had not received vaccines. Schoolchildren who contracted the disease usually only had one dose of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine.

About 73 percent of children receiving medical care at Anne Arundel public health centers are vaccinated before age 2, said Wendy Herrick Mahan, the county's immunization representative. The rest usually get their shots before entering school, she said.

Maryland law requires that children be immunized before entering public schools. At least 99 percent of the 65,000 students enrolled in Anne Arundel schools have received their recommended shots, Mahan said.

The recent outbreaks of measles have been blamed on the vaccine's failure rate of between 2 and5 percent. Researchers also have found that the antibodies have faded in some secondary school pupils.

"If you have a high school with1,000 children, which is an average size for a high school, about 920 to 980 are immune," Hirshorn said. "That's not quite all. Some willbe left vulnerable to measles."

To prevent another outbreak of measles in the high schools next spring, the county Health Department is offering free booster shots at all 16 middle schools in October. Free vaccines for preschoolers also are available at the county's 12 public health clinics.

"We certainly hope people haven't forgotten the outbreak of measles last spring," said Evelyn Stein, spokeswoman for the Health Department.

Students at Arundel Senior High and Indian Creek Elementary were ordered to get a second dose of the measles vaccine after bothschools had outbreaks. Health officials hope to avoid another resurgence of measles during this school year, Stein said.

Although the county joined other Maryland jurisdictions in offering free booster shots to seventh-graders last spring, only 23 percentof the eligible students signed up.

Health officials hope to increase the participation rate by running the program only in October instead of spreading it out over several months.

All middle-school students will be eligible this time.

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