An increasing number of vaccine deniers coupled with one of the easiest opt-out provisions in the nation has left Arizona with close to one out of every 10 kindergartners unprotected against key childhood diseases.
That’s causing concerns from the state’s top health official.
“The measles MMR vaccine is highly effective,” said Don Herrington, interim director of the state Department of Health Services.
The same vaccine also protects against mumps and rubella and that a high rate of vaccination is the best way to prevent an outbreak among those who can’t be vaccinated due to medical or religious reasons, or simply because they’re too young.
Yet during the last school year, the most recent data available, only 90.6% of Arizona kindergartners actually got the MMR vaccine, Herrington said – “well short of the 95% threshold considered necessary to prevent localized outbreaks.”
The result are those outbreaks, like three new cases of measles earlier this month in Maricopa County, including an adult and two minors, all unvaccinated. One had to be hospitalized.
And Herrington said these are not innocuous diseases.
“Measles, in particular, you can have loss of hearing,” he told Capitol Media Services. “It can affect their intellectual development. You can have brain swelling. It’s killed people.”
But of particular concern are the increasing number of parents who are claiming a “personal exemption” from the requirement that children attending school be vaccinated against not just measles, mumps and rubella but a host of other diseases. They need not provide any reason at all.
The result is that 6.6% of kindergartners in school statewide have a personal exemption for one or more vaccines.
Kyrene School District Communications Executive Director Erin Helm said that out of the district’s approximate 13,000 students, 498 exemptions have been granted across all schools and grade levels.
She noted that parents seeking an exemption fill out one of three forms provided by the state to all schools for exemptions – Kyrene: medical, religious belief, and personal belief.
At the high school level, students also must show proof of vaccination for tetanus, polio, MMR, hepatitis, chicken pox and meningococcal.
Megan Sterling, executive director of community relations for Tempe Union said a total of about 13,000 students have exemptions, including eight at Mountain Pointe and 53 at Desert Vista.
Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association called the decline in childhood immunizations in the state “insidious” and noted that the rate has been dropping about a half percent a year for the past decade.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Arizona is one of only 14 states that has a personal exemption. Gov. Doug Ducey, who has seen the personal opt-out rate for kindergarten-required vaccinations rise from 1.4%
in 2000 to 6.6% now, showed no interest in asking lawmakers to eliminate
California, facing a measles outbreak at Disneyland in 2019, eliminated the personal exemption. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation saying parents could not use personal or philosophical exemptions and still send their children to school.
Humble said Herrington’s agency is not entirely powerless even if Arizona keeps its personal exemption.
He pointed out the department actually had worked with state Sen. Heather Carter to create a pilot program in 2018 to provide educational materials to parents seeking to opt out of one or more vaccines. The idea was to show the benefits outweigh any risks.
But the effort was scrapped after complaints from some parents who feared they would have to take the course to get the personal exemption, something that was not true.
Humble, who was health director before Ducey took office, said the agency should revisit the plan.
All that is based on his view that there’s a direct link between vaccine acceptance and education and the related issue of income, one he said was borne out by a study the University of Arizona did for the health department a year ago.
“The lower income families, when their pediatrician says something, they believe it. It’s ‘the doctor recommended this, so this is what I’m going to do,’ ” Humble said.
And those with higher income and more education?
“You get people who think they know more than the doctor knows,” he said. “So I guess it’s hubris when you think you’re smarter than you really are about things and question the physician’s recommendations and therefore decide on your own not to vaccinate, either based on what your friends are saying in the friend group or what you’ re reading on Facebook or whatever those sources of bad information are.”
Herrington said he’s not prepared to have that fight again.
“I think it really was like a line in the sand for some people,” he said of the reaction to the 2018 pilot programme. “We meant it to be very informative … so that we could inform people of the drastic consequences of not being vaccinated.”
But he said that’s not the way it came across.
“I think some folks felt that we were trying to scare people, which, of course, we weren’t,” Herrington said. So rather than push ahead, he said, “we just rethought it and discontinued it.”
What’s left in his toolbox, he said, are press releases, blog posts and media interviews, all with the goal of explaining to people about the benefits of the MMR vaccine and why it’s not like others that some see no reason to take.
“People read that COVID vaccines might prevent half of cases,” Herrington said. “Flu might prevent 60%.”
“But that measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, if you get both doses in the right sequence, timing I mean, it’s 97% effective,” he said. “And I think that’s going to have to be a lot of our messaging is that don’t associate all vaccines with that of the flu vaccine or with the COVID vaccine.”