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Vaccine exemption rates and missing measles shots have Utah health officials on guard

FILE - This Feb. 6, 2015, file photo, shows a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine on a countertop at a pediatrics clinic in Greenbrae, Calif.
Eric Risberg
AP, file
FILE - This Feb. 6, 2015, file photo, shows a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine on a countertop at a pediatrics clinic in Greenbrae, Calif.

Now that a measles outbreak has hit 18 states, Utah health officials are bracing for what could come.

The potential danger is exacerbated by a sharp decline in vaccination rates among children entering kindergarten, including the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

According to the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, kindergarteners exempt from vaccination have hovered at around 5% for a long time. In the last two years, however, that jumped to 7.2%.

Including other factors, like vaccination non-compliance and online schooling, 87.3% of kindergarteners are adequately vaccinated statewide. For herd immunity, health officials look for a 95% vaccination rate.

Rich Lakin, the immunization program director at the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, said misinformation and safety concerns have been large drivers in vaccination rate decreases.

“A lot of the exemptions are not because the parents are against vaccinations,” Lakin added. “It's because they come to school and they're not prepared. And an easy way to get their child enrolled in school right away is to just to claim an exemption.”

Exemptions can be claimed for medical, personal or religious reasons. The most common category is personal. Parents only need to click through an online educational module to receive it.

During the 2022-2023 school year, 11.2% of kindergarteners in the Wasatch health district started school without an MMR vaccine. The exemption rate in Wasatch also jumped from 7.1% to 10.9% in just one year.

“The numbers that we are seeing are unprecedented,” said Aubreigh Parks, the nursing and wellness supervisor for the Wasatch County School District.

She said much of this change came in the aftermath of the pandemic when skepticism about vaccines became commonplace. As a result, Parks sees her role as an educator to combat parents’ fears surrounding vaccination as crucial.

“Parents deserve a health care provider who will sit down with them and have these educated conversations addressing these fears. Parents need help accessing valid, evidence-based guidelines and understanding how that information they've heard or seen is incorrect.”

In the meantime, she’s worried about the potential for measles cases to pop up in the coming weeks — especially with spring break starting next week. Beyond illness, there’s the risk of learning loss among students already trying to catch up after the pandemic.

If two connected measles cases are found in the same school, state policy mandates that every student without an MMR vaccine not attend school for at least three weeks.

“The exclusion period can go longer than that initial 21 days from exposure because technically they have to stay out depending on how many more cases occur. These students would have to stay out for 21 days after the date of the last known case’s measles rash onset,” Parks said.

She has never experienced a measles case in the district but at this point “all of us in this state, not just Wasatch County School District, are sitting ducks. We’re all sitting and watching and waiting for us to be next.”

“It’s heartbreaking because I know that the student’s education could potentially be impacted by something that's very preventable. And it's heartbreaking because it tells me how much distrust there has been between health care [providers] and patients.”

Tilda is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in the Central Utah bureau based out of Provo.
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