Fearing even a small outbreak of highly contagious measles, health officials will offer free combination vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella to all sixth-grade students in the county.
The programwill include all 10 public middle schools as well as private schoolsin the county and will begin Jan. 17.
Students must have received at least one MMR shot to enter school. But health officials now recommend that children receive a second immunization, preferably during their sixth-grade year, because the early vaccination is about 95 percent effective, said Ruth Talbot, assistant director of the Howard County Bureau of Personal Health.
If only one vaccination is given, it is still possible to contract measles, mumps or rubella (German measles). Measles outbreaks tend to occur in the spring, Talbot said.
Last year, three cases of measles and six cases of mumps were reported in Howard County, Talbot said.
"Measles is a big problem, as is mumps, in Maryland and in the UnitedStates right now," Talbot said.
Impetus for the vaccinations is coming from the federal government. The state has received $292,000 from the federal Centers for Disease Control specifically designated for second-dose MMR shots, said Barry Trostel, director of the immunization division of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. With this money, the state department hopes to provide vaccinations toapproximately 20,000 students.
Parents of sixth-graders in the county will receive a letter from their child's school containing instructions about the vaccination program and informing them which of thecounty's three health centers -- located in Columbia, Ellicott City and Savage -- is designated to provide the vaccine to their child.
Parents must bring the child to the health center, sign a consent form and provide a record of the child's prior immunizations. Vaccinations will not be given at schools.
Measles, mumps and rubella have been referred to as childhood diseases, but, especially when contracted in adulthood, they can lead to serious complications.
Measles is a virus which produces a fever, a runny nose, watery eyes and a rash, which usually begins on the neck. In severe cases it can lead to ear problems, pneumonia or death.
Mumps involves the swelling of the salivary glands. In extreme cases, it can cause severe damage to the male reproductive organs.
While rubella is a mild virus, it poses serious risks for pregnant women because it can cause major birth defects.
The county's MMR immunization program will begin with thevaccination of students from Clarksville Middle School Jan. 17 and will continue until the last week of April.