Updated at 1:55 p.m., Feb. 26, 2019:
As a measles outbreak continues in Washington state, a congressional hearing Wednesday will discuss the preventable disease, now considered to be a “growing public health threat.”
Several states are considering legislation to encourage higher rates of childhood vaccines. The response in our region is mixed.
In Montana, one representative is working to make it easier for parents to opt-out of vaccines for children in daycare.
On the other hand, Colorado State Rep. Kyle Mullica, an emergency room nurse and a father of two, is leading work on a bill that would make it harder for parents to opt out for non-medical reasons.
Mullica says before being sworn in, he found out that Colorado came in dead last for kindergarten vaccination rates.
“There’s 49 states that report, and we’re 49th,” he says, referring to state ranking collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “I'm concerned as a dad. I don't want my daughter to be exposed to anything in school or my son to be exposed in preschool to something that's preventable. And as a nurse, I've cared for some of these kids that have come into the E.R. that have preventable diseases.”
Colorado parents can choose not to get their kids vaccinated for medical, religious or personal reasons. Currently, exemption forms can be filed online with only one parent’s sign-off.
As The Colorado Sun has reported, Gov. Jared Polis opposes Mullica’s effort to change the law.
“Governor Polis believes that forcing people to receive shots they don’t want creates mistrust of government, mistrust of vaccinations, and would ultimately backfire and hurt public health,” said Laurie Cipriano, press secretary for Gov. Polis, in an email.
“That's the fear, but I don't know that we have a lot of evidence that that's true,” says Dr. Sean O’Leary, an associate professor in pediatrics and infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “In the places that have had longstanding policies of not having any exemptions — West Virginia and Mississippi, for example — their kindergarten rates are 99 percent. They've maintained very high vaccination rates for many years.”
And in California, he says, some doctors started giving unwarranted medical exemptions when the state eliminated non-medical exemptions, but on the whole vaccination rates did increase.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Colorado, Utah and Idaho are among 17 states that allow parents to opt out of vaccines for personal reasons. So is Washington, where at least 64 people in Clark County have contracted measles in that state’s latest outbreak.
“Because measles is so contagious, when you get below 95 percent (vaccination) you are prone to potentially having an outbreak,” says O’Leary.
“Colorado has plenty of pockets that are just like Clark County,” says O’Leary. “For Colorado it's not a matter of if we get a measles outbreak, it's a matter of when we get a measles outbreak. We've been lucky.”
Vaccines, the refrain goes, have become a victim of their own success.
“In a recent measles outbreak in Madagascar, 900 children have already died,” says O’Leary. “And even in developed countries like the U.S. for every 1,000 children that get measles, one to three will die.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that, at about 89 percent, Colorado has the lowest percentage of kindergartners vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella. Idaho, Montana, and Utah have low enough vaccination rates that they’re considered at risk for outbreaks. Wyoming didn’t report information to the CDC.
Beyond the basic health implications, both Mullica and O’Leary point to cost as another reason to increase vaccination coverage. It took about $70,000 in taxpayer dollars to contain two measles cases in Denver in recent years.
“Last year alone we could have saved $55 million in unnecessary hospital visits, had we been appropriately vaccinated,” says Mullica, pointing to a report out this month from the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition and Children’s Hospital Colorado, which tallied up the charges that hospitals and emergency rooms incurred in one year by treating more than 9,400 children for vaccine-preventable diseases.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.