Chicago day cares, parents tighten measles precautions

Liz Krause and Michelle Pizarro take a snack break with 10-month-old Max and eight-month-old Mila at MommyCon in Rosemont Feb. 21. Both women said they were nervous about bringing their infants to a crowded venue (Meg Anderson/Medill).

By Meg Anderson

Young moms chatted between cloth diaper displays, with wide-eyed babies dangling and cooing in carriers. But amid the heady odor of lotion samples and soiled diapers, the threat of measles loomed in many minds at MommyCon, a natural parenting convention.

“Honestly, it pisses me off that we have to worry about it,” said Michelle Pizarro, 30, as she sat feeding eight-month-old Mila at the Feb. 21 convention in Rosemont.

A few weeks before, Olga Gusarovskaya, the program director at Wicker Park’s New Einsteins Academy, brought the parents of an unvaccinated child into her daycare office for a tough talk: vaccinate your child or find a different daycare.

“People who make that personal choice have to think about the consequences,” Gusarovskaya said.

As measles cases in Cook County rose to 15 last week, daycare centers and parents around Chicago are tightening precautions for infants too young for the vaccine.

Michelle and Mila Pizarro
Michelle Pizarro feeds her eight-month-old daughter Mila at MommyCon in Rosemont Feb. 21. (Meg Anderson/Medill)

Contracting measles after vaccination is rare, but infants cannot receive the first of two shots against the highly contagious airborne illness until they are 12 to 15 months old, making them vulnerable to the recent outbreak.

Of Cook County’s 15 cases, 11 were infants under the vaccination age, said Sean McDermott, director of policy development and communications at the Cook County Department of Public Health.

One in four people who get measles will be hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Brain damage and death can occur, but that is rare.

The measles outbreak in Cook County began in January and has been concentrated at the Palatine KinderCare, which was linked to 12 cases, according to the Cook County Department of Public Health.

KinderCare does not require vaccinations at their facilities, said Colleen Moran, a senior communications coordinator at Knowledge Universe, which owns KinderCare, in a statement.

Parents and daycare centers can do little to protect infants under a year from infection beyond limiting exposure to people who are unvaccinated.

The YMCA of Metro Chicago instituted a policy after the Palatine outbreak that all staff, not just those in licensed programs like Head Start, must be vaccinated, said Rae Ulrich, YMCA of Metro Chicago’s senior director of Integrated Marketing and Communications.

Other daycares are relying on education. Sierra Caron, the director of the Kid’s Work daycare in North Center, sent an email advising parents to follow their pediatrician’s recommendations.

Caron, who brings her own six-month-old to her center, added she is no longer taking her infant with her to the grocery store since the outbreak.

Abby McKillip, Christina Westemeier
Abby McKillip, left, and Christina Westemeier, right, wandered through MommyCon with their daughters, who cannot get the measles vaccine yet. McKillip said she hopes people wouldn’t bring sick children to the conference. (Meg Anderson/Medill)

Other Chicago parents echoed Caron’s concerns. Emily Meyer-Mitsdarffer, a 31-year-old mom of two, said she canceled her plans to attend MommyCon, which she said she was looking forward to.

“I don’t want my children to be hermits by any means, but I just don’t see a point in borrowing trouble,” Meyer-Mitsdarffer said.

At MommyCon, Shane Preece, 28, looked on as his 15-month-old daughter danced with her mother. Preece and his wife are choosing not to vaccinate their child. Preece said he was not concerned about measles.

“I would say for [worried parents] to talk to their grandpa and ask him how it was,” Preece said, indicating that measles was once common and most people survived it.

Nearby, Pizarro continued spooning applesauce into Mila’s mouth.

“It is concerning,” Pizarro said, “but I’m also not going to keep her locked in the house.”

Pizarro turned to Mila, patting the pink bow holding a tiny curl in place atop her head, “You still want to have some fun, right?”

Photo at top: Liz Krause and Michelle Pizarro take a snack break with 10-month-old Max and eight-month-old Mila at MommyCon. Both women said they were nervous about bringing their infants to a crowded venue. (Meg Anderson/Medill)