Measles is making a comeback in the U.S. as more parents choose not to vaccinate their children. The childhood disease is a major killer in much of the developing world, but now the public health community is trying to re-educate families about the importance of childhood vaccinations. That includes a new program in Utah.
In 2017, Republican Utah State Representative Norm Thurston was approached by people in his district. They wanted to make sure that parents who weren’t going to vaccinate their kids understood what that choice meant.
“I’m strongly pro-vaccination,” Thurston said. “I think that every child that can be vaccinated should be vaccinated.”
Thurston represents Utah County. It’s an area of the state with some of the highest numbers of children who don’t get vaccinated for common childhood diseases like measles, whooping cough and mumps. And while Thurston is pro-vaccination, he’s also pro-personal choice.
“For me it’s an important part of freedom is to be able to make that decision for yourself,” he said.
In the past, parents who wanted their kids exempt from vaccinations for medical, religious or philosophical reasons had to go to their county health clinic, talk to a nurse and take a form to their child’s school. So, Thurston came up with a compromise. Now parents can stay at home and watch a program online about the importance of vaccinations instead.
The 20-minute long module covers the basics: It dispels vaccine myths and describes vaccine-preventable diseases and why childhood shots are important. It also explains the precautions parents need to take if they don’t get their kids vaccinated, like having them stay home from school if there’s a disease outbreak. A measles outbreak would mean an unvaccinated child must stay at home for 21 days. 26 days at home for mumps, etc.
The goal is to get parents consistent information. But some are still resistant and see the online program as patronizing.
Including Seth Cox, a parent in Utah County. He stopped vaccinating his five kids, he said, after hearing stories about children having allergic reactions. And when he took his kids to get vaccinated, he said it seemed like doctors relied more on scare tactics than answering his questions.
“‘Stop being such a scaredy-cat,’” Cox said, recalling the tone of their conversations. “And, ‘You’re putting everybody at risk, and your own children. You’re a terrible parent.’”
According to the CDC, severe allergic reactions to childhood vaccinations are extremely rare.
Despite that assurance, the number of parents around the country getting vaccine exemptions is growing, along with a rise in the infections those childhood shots are meant to prevent, according to Peter Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College in Houston.
“These are scary diseases. I mean measles, before we did large-scale global programs, was the single leading killer of children in the world in the 1980s,” Hotez said.
According to a recent report Hotez co-authored, this trend means preventable diseases are again putting communities at risk.
“We’ve got counties now in the western part of the United States where you have schools where you have 10, 20, 30 percent of the kids are not receiving their childhood vaccines,” he said.
The spread of preventable diseases doesn’t just affect individual children whose parents choose not to get them immunized. These low vaccination rates interfere with a phenomenon known as “herd immunity,” the term doctors and researchers use to describe what happens when the vast majority of a community is vaccinated.
When a disease outbreak does occur, that mass vaccination makes it more difficult for infections to spread. Herd immunity is especially important for vulnerable people who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons like having a weakened immune system in the case of people with cancer or HIV.
Rich Lakin is the immunization program manager at the Utah Department of Health. He said the effectiveness of vaccines in the U.S. has made it ironically difficult to convey their importance to some parents.
“It’s probably one of public health’s greatest achievements but it’s also our downfall. Now we have to fight for why immunizations are so important because we don’t see the diseases like we used to,” Lakin said.
Lakin is not convinced that Utah’s new program is going to solve the problem of growing vaccine exemptions. It could make things worse since now parents can exempt their kids online rather than requiring a trip to the doctor’s office.
He knows personally how a childhood shot can change a life. Growing up, Lakin had an uncle with polio.
“I saw him all growing up,” Lakin said, “I remember him telling me ‘Man I wish that vaccine had come out a couple of years earlier.’”
He hopes the new information will be a reminder for parents about what’s at stake.
The online immunization module in Utah is now available for the coming school year.