Baton Rouge mother M.E. Cormier yanked her son from storytime at the Jones Creek Library upon discovering the library system does not require or encourage patrons to receive vaccinations.
Her son CJ is a few weeks shy of his first birthday and not quite old enough to receive a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. She worries he is susceptible to diseases from unvaccinated older children with whom he shares books and toys at the library.
Asking all library patrons to become vaccinated against infectious diseases is a requirement library and public health officials say they cannot enforce. Library Director Spencer Watts likens the library to any other public space where unvaccinated people visit: a grocery store, a shopping center, a football game.
“We won’t be attending (storytime) until there are no unvaccinated kids attending,” Cormier said after asking the Library Board to change its policy.
Cormier’s plight is one of many that have sprung up around the state and nation since a measles outbreak spread in December at Disneyland. Since then, lawmakers nationwide have weighed religious and philosophical exemptions to immunizations against public health concerns.
In Louisiana, the vaccination enforcement point comes from schools, said Frank Welch, the state’s immunization medical director. Both public and private schools require children to be up to date on immunizations.
Parents can opt out for philosophical and religious exemptions, and Welch said keeping close tabs on those alerts school and health officials to be aware of which children need to stay home, given a school outbreak.
He said he views libraries as more of a center for education about vaccination rather than a place where it’s possible to force people into becoming vaccinated.
Welch said parents like Cormier should take solace in a few facts. Louisiana has one of the country’s highest immunization rates, as more than 96 percent of children entering kindergarten are up to date on their vaccinations.
He said school and health officials work with the remaining 4 percent to try to bring them up to the standards. Welch also noted that immunity can be passed down.
“Vaccinations are timed not only to protect the child at the most vulnerable period but also when the vaccine can be accepted by the body,” Welch said. “The reason her child is not eligible to get an MMR yet is the mother’s immune system is still active in that baby. And if we gave that baby a measles shot right now, it would be killed by the mother’s immune system.”
Welch said babies tend to shed their mother’s immunity once they are a year old.
Watts said he is sympathetic to Cormier’s position but said he cannot kick people out of the library for not having their immunizations. He said questions about vaccines have never come up before in his nearly three decades of library experience.
Assistant Library Director Mary Stein recalled a Baton Rouge chickenpox outbreak many years ago and said she remembered calling the doctor about what to do with some books that children with chickenpox had touched. She said the doctor laughed but told her they could isolate the books for the length of the incubation period, which is what they did.
“What the library system could do is encourage up-to-date vaccinations and encourage good health habits,” Welch said. “I would not only encourage up-to-date vaccinations but also washing your hands, covering your cough, sterilizing frequently used surfaces.”
Despite the high vaccination rates, Welch said, he knows the day is coming when Louisiana diagnoses its first measles case. Measles “is the standard of the most contagious thing we know,” he said.
The disease, manifested by symptoms of a fever and rash, can easily seep through high herd immunity and infect the few unvaccinated people.
He said the Department of Health and Hospitals has reached out to pediatricians, family practitioners and schools to prepare for a measles case. They have established the importance of separating the child from everyone else, as well as whom to call and what kinds of lab tests to run.
Follow Andrea Gallo on Twitter, @aegallo.