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State has second-worst measles vaccination rate in U.S.

Thanks in part to recent outbreaks across the nation, lawmakers are starting to come forward to do something about the decrease in measles vaccinations in Pennsylvania.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) recently called on the state Department of Health to double-down on the issue, noting in a Feb. 13 letter to Acting Secretary Karen Murphy that he was “concerned that our state may be faced with a potential outbreak.” With thousands of children “unprotected and at risk,” he urged Murphy to “examine the reasons that have led to such low vaccination rates in much of the state.”

At the state level, Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery, Delaware) has introduced a bill that would address exemptions to vaccine requirements, eliminating the “philosophical” exemption but leaving the religious and medical exemptions that parents can apply for untouched.

“The recent outbreak of measles reminds us that vaccines are also absolutely essential to public health,” Leach said in a news release. “It should be the policy of the Pennsylvania government to encourage the highest possible vaccination rate.”

Another reason for this sudden flury of action was the recent announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Pennsylvania has the nation’s second-lowest measles vaccination rate among kindergartners.

You read that right — the second lowest in the country.

According to a Jan. 23 health advisory from the CDC, only 86 percent of Pennsylvania’s children entering kindergarten have had measles vaccines. And that’s nowhere near the 95 percent minimum that doctors recommend to protect public health. That 95 percent is what gives us “herd immunity,” where the vast majority of a community is protected and the disease in question is virtually eradicated. It’s also where we’ve been with measles in the U.S. for the past 15 years.

But now, here in Pennsylvania, 49 out of our 67 counties fall below the 95 percent minimum. In some parts of the state, in fact, the number of vaccinated kids falls below 80 percent.

The reasons behind this drop have been making the news lately, ranging from apathetic parents who merely haven’t bothered, to folks who have medical or religious reasons, to “anti-vaxxers” who believe — decades of scientific evidence to the contrary — that vaccinations may cause autism and all sorts of other major health issues (aside from the more common and usually minor side effects).

The latter group is so adamant about their stance that more and more of them are seeking exemptions from measles vaccines based on “strong moral or ethical convictions,” as state law puts it.

The result, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, is that while the number of “religious or philosophical exceptions to state rules” has gone up, so have the number of measles outbreaks. In 2014 alone, there were 23 outbreaks and more than 600 cases nationwide. For 2015, there were already 102 cases in 14 states by the end of last month, the CDC reported. One of them, apparently caused by an outbreak at Disneyland in California, was reported in Cumberland County and confirmed by the PA Department of Health.

One local case doesn’t seem so terrible — until you remember that measles is highly contagious and potentially deadly and that pockets of non-immunized kids around the state can get really sick, really fast.

CDC officials have also weighed in on the exemption debate, explaining that “states with philosophical exemptions have 2.5 times the rate of opt-outs than states with only religious exemptions.” They also noted that in many states, while parents have to “cite and explain” the religious doctrine in question, they do not have to explain their philosophical objections to get an exemption.

They went on to say that the risks of not having your child immunized — including pneumonia, encephalitis and death — are far greater than any potential side effects from the vaccine.

And, presumably, greater than any trumped-up objections based on bad science and public hysteria.

Larry Portzline
Larry Portzline covers York County, nonprofits, workforce and education. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at [email protected].

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