Is Utah the Next State Posed for a Measles Outbreak? 5 Percent of State's First Graders Have Vaccine Exemptions

Public health officials in Utah have put the state's citizens on notice.

Though a case of measles has not yet been reported in the state, the concern is that it will only be a matter of time before the disease arrives.

"We think we will probably be experiencing it here in Utah soon. All of us must choose to immunize. Not just to protect our own children, but also, even more importantly, to protect infants and children of others — our friends and neighbors who are too young to be immunized, or have lost their immunity due to other diseases," Joseph Miner, executive director of the Utah Department of Health told The Salt Lake Tribune.

According to Utah's 2018 Immunization Coverage Report, 5.3 percent of children who entered kindergarten in the 2017-2018 school year, had some type of vaccine exemption. Those children, now in 1st grade, were exempted for personal reasons at a rate of 96 percent, with an additional 3.1 percent a religious objection and 0.7 percent due to medical issues.

Additionally, 4.2 percent of students from kindergarten to 12th grade had not received a second dose of the Measles, Mumps, Rubella vaccine, which is recommended by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention to generate a higher immunity rate.

According to the CDC, individuals who have two doses of the MMR vaccine have a 97 percent immunity rate against measles and 88 percent against mumps compared to those with one dose. One dose gives an immunity of 93 percent against measles, 78 percent against mumps and 97 percent against rubella.

The statistics are also a concern among younger children, with the report identifying just 93 percent of children enrolled in Head Start centers in 2017 as being completely vaccinated, the number drops to 90 percent at child care facilities and preschools, while students entering 7th grade were vaccinated at a 92.4 percent rate.

All five categories examined in the report are below the recommended 96 percent mark set by the National National Institutes of Health to develop herd immunity — the point at which it becomes difficult for an infectious disease to easily spread from person to person.

Concerns among public health officials in Utah were highlighted on Thursday when some of those officials, as well as others from University of Utah Health and Intermountain Health, came together for a press conference to urge Uthans to vaccinate themselves and their families.

"We have many vaccines that are safe and effective," Miner said at the press conference. "In fact, they're so effective that too many of us are inexperienced with the diseases and ignorant of the seriousness of them."

"All of us must choose to immunize," he added, "Not only to protect our own children but also, even more importantly, to immunize to protect infants and children of others, our friends and neighbors who are too young to be immunized or have lost their immunity due to other diseases."

Currently, an outbreak of mumps is underway in central Utah with 13 cases reported since the beginning of the year. Utah typically sees two or three cases per year.

"We cannot cure mumps, rubella, or measles once you have it. All we can do is prevent it and the way to prevent it is using the tool that we have - the MMR vaccine," Dr. Tamara Sheffield, Medical Director for Preventive Medicine Intermountain Healthcare said at Thursday's press conference.

"Trends change. Right now, the trend is for people not to seek vaccinations for a variety of reasons. These are good parents. Most of them that we see are concerned about their children," Dr. Allyn Nakashima, Epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health, said. "But maybe it has something to do with social media and the way people get their information and they may not be completely scientific. When we have an outbreak of measles, it is very, very expensive and difficult for us to control."

In 2011, Utah experienced an outbreak of 15 cases of measles that cost the state $130,000 to contain the disease. In that outbreak, an estimated 12,000 people were exposed and four public schools were quarantined, the Tribune said.

Currently, 704 cases of measles have been reported across 22 states, including in neighboring Nevada, Colorado and Arizona. California has also seen numerous reports of the disease, including in Los Angeles and Sacramento counties.

Anti-vax, measles
File photo: A child receives a vaccine. Getty Images
Is Utah the Next State Posed for a Measles Outbreak? 5 Percent of State's First Graders Have Vaccine Exemptions | U.S.