Today, there are outbreaks of measles in Oregon, Washington, New York, Texas and Illinois, with individual cases in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky and New Jersey. Over 206 people have been confirmed to have the disease in 2019 alone — a threefold increase from the same period in 2010. Believe it or not, measles was declared eradicated from the United States in 2000. Now we hear daily of families afraid to leave home with their newborn for fear of contracting the disease.
These outbreaks are a blunt reminder of how vulnerable we are in Colorado. For the 2017-18 school year, Colorado’s vaccination rate for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) ranked 49th out of 50 states, with a coverage rate of 94 percent for two doses of MMR. Colorado allows for three types of exemptions (medical, religious and personal) for children to be able to attend school without immunizations. In Pitkin County, all of the MMR exemptions filed (except one for religious reasons) were personal. These exemptions contributed to our coverage rate of 93 percent. We need 95 percent coverage to prevent a measles outbreak. While the difference may seem small, it’s the difference between sickness and health for infants, those who have compromised immune systems and pregnant women.
Vaccines are one of the greatest successes of our time — reducing illness, medical costs and emotional heartbreak for countless families. Vaccines have eradicated smallpox, nearly eliminated polio and reduced disability and suffering from infections caused by measles, diphtheria and whooping cough. Yet vaccines are victims of their own success.
Across the country, we are seeing a rise in “vaccine hesitancy.” That is, families whose children do not receive immunizations within the schedule recommended by scientific research. This is not surprising, given that most of us have never had to witness the devastating consequences of diseases such as measles and mumps. But the impact of these illnesses can be life-changing. For example, mumps can cause infertility in boys; rubella can cause birth defects; and one in four people with measles will require hospitalization. In 2017 in Colorado, 9,424 children were taken to the hospital because they were ill from a disease that could have been prevented by vaccination.
Some parents have concerns about vaccines because they are trying to do the best for their child and are rightfully being cautious about decisions that will affect them. This is every parent’s job after all. The truth is, vaccination saves lives — approximately 33,000 each year in the U.S. alone. Some of the best minds in science have and continue to work on vaccines to make them safe and effective for the community and for their own children.
In the end, we all pay the cost of controlling the spread of illness from diseases that can be prevented by a vaccine. Washington State declared a state of emergency in response to its measles outbreak in order to receive federal funding to respond. It has cost over $1 million so far. Schools pay a cost to continue to meet education standards despite children being absent for weeks. And most importantly, immunocompromised individuals and their families pay the cost of being vulnerable to severe illness.
For immunizations to protect each of us, all of us who can get fully vaccinated must do so. Diseases quickly become outbreaks when we don’t work together. High rates of vaccination are needed to keep our families, friends, neighbors and communities healthy and safe. We are privileged to have access to vaccinations — an opportunity that many others do not. As a part of this community, we have a responsibility to each other. I am happy to speak to anyone, without judgment, to help you think through your worries and fears, if you are vaccine hesitant. In the end we all want the same thing: for our loved ones to be safe and healthy.
Karen Koenemann is the Pitkin County public health director. She has formerly served as the public health director in Delta County and spent five years as Eagle County’s healthy communities division manager.