Gehrke: With some of the worst vaccination rates in the country, it’s likely a matter of when — not if — Utahns contract measles

Robert Gehrke

In April, children in Sanpete County who hadn’t been vaccinated were banned from school activities after two students were diagnosed with mumps.

That may not sound like a big outbreak, but according to the most recent data from the Utah Department of Health and state Office of Education, nearly one in six kindergartners entering school in Sanpete districts have not been adequately vaccinated.

Sanpete County has some of the worst measles and mumps vaccination rates in a state that is seventh-worst in the entire country.

Those two sick children could have started an outbreak, but, luckily and with the help of some extreme preventive measures, they didn’t.

Statewide, greater than one child out of nine is not vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Given Utah’s large class sizes, that means roughly three students in every classroom are unprotected.

And in almost every single case, the data shows, the reason those kids aren’t getting vaccinated is because their parents simply choose not to do it. Utah, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, is one of 17 states that let parents opt out of vaccinating their children, whether it’s because of paranoia over some trash they read on the internet or because they just don’t feel like getting it done.

Typically, it isn’t much more than an annoyance to hear anti-vaxxers tout their conspiracy theories and assert their parental rights without recognizing that also means exercising a right to endanger anyone around their kid.

But through May 3 there has already been 764 confirmed cases of measles across 23 states. That is as many cases in just the first four months of this year as were documented in the prior four years combined. And the number has been growing by about 60 cases each week.

There are outbreaks being treated in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, California, Georgia and Maryland. Cases have also been reported in several of our neighboring states, such as Colorado, Nevada and Arizona.

You don’t have to have a medical degree to see how this is going to end up for Utah.

But for kicks, maybe consider what people who have medical degrees say on the topic.

“We think we will probably be experiencing it here in Utah soon,” Joseph Miner, a physician and executive director of the Utah Department of Health, said last week.

The Sanpete mumps outbreak indicates Utah is likely susceptible to measles, since they’re immunized with the same vaccine, according to Allyn Nakashima, program manager at the health department.

“We’re thinking we may not escape that bullet,” he said.

It means some Utah kids will get very sick because their parents got suckered by anti-vaxxer paranoia. Maybe, if nothing else, it will force the Legislature to consider doing more to encourage vaccinations.

“My personal opinion is I’d like to see personal exemptions go away,” Rich Lakin, immunization program manager for the Utah Department of Health said recently.

Politically, that is extremely unlikely. But the Legislature doesn’t need to buy in wholesale to the “my-kid-my-choice” mentality, either.

In 2016, Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss and then-Sen. Brian Shiozawa (now the regional director for the U.S. Department of Health) sponsored legislation requiring the state health department to put together information for parents who choose not to vaccinate so at least they have reliable data about the very real risks to themselves and others.

That bill, which is the absolute least lawmakers could have done to protect children, didn’t pass.

So here we are, waiting for a disease that could easily be prevented, because parents won’t exercise common sense and Utah lawmakers choose to foster that ignorance.