Officials urge vaccinations as measles threat spreads

Bill that would have modified state law on exemptions failed to pass state Legislature


From Jan. 1 to April 26, 704 measles cases were reported in the United States, the most in 25 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A contentious bill that would have made it make it harder for parents to get vaccine exemptions for their children died with time running out in the final days of the legislative session, which closed May 3. But health experts say they will continue to stress the importance of vaccine requirements in Colorado, a state with historically low vaccination rates.

“Outbreaks happen in communities with low rates of vaccinations and spread really quickly,” said Jessica Cataldi, a pediatrician and specialist in infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital Colorado. “I think for Colorado, the best thing to do is to try to act now and act preventative before we are in the situation of an outbreak.”

Colorado’s vaccination rate in kindergarten-aged children is among the lowest in the country at roughly 89 percent, according to a recent CDC survey. To protect the population, health professionals say 95 percent of people should be vaccinated.

State Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Thornton, one of three sponsors of House Bill 1312, called Colorado’s low vaccination rates a “public health crisis.” The state has had one confirmed case of measles in 2019.

“Waiting for a tragedy to happen is not an option,” Mullica, a trained trauma nurse, said in an April 27 news release. “This is about the safety of our students and experts have been consulted in crafting this important legislation.”

The bill was also sponsored by Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Aurora, and Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver. In the measure’s final hearing on May 1, hundreds of families showed up at the Capitol in an effort to stop the bill, which received pushback from Gov. Jared Polis.

The bill would have created a standardized exemption form and required that all exemptions be submitted to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment or the local public health agency. It would have also required initial non-medical exemptions be submitted in person to the state health department or local public health agency, a condition that Polis opposed.

Highly contagious

Some of the largest school districts in the Denver metro area either meet or are on the cusp of the preferred vaccination rate. Jefferson County Public Schools has a 94.8 percent compliancy rate for all immunizations. Douglas County School District has a 94.6 percent compliancy rate for MMR, the measles vaccine.

On the higher end, Adams 12 Five Star Schools has a 98.7 percent compliancy rate.

Still, health professionals are concerned. Measles is one of, if not the most, contagious infections, officials say. Spread through the air, measles can lead to pneumonia or encephalitis. The risks are significant if a community is exposed to the disease and less than 95 percent of the population is vaccinated, Cataldi said.

“Even thought it’s an old disease, it’s still the one that is most contagious,” Cataldi said. “Meaning if one person gets measles, they are likely to make between 12 and 18 other people sick.”

To protect against measles, the CDC recommend two doses of the MMR vaccine, starting with the first dose at 12 to 15 months of age, and the second dose at 4 to 6 years of age. Symptoms of measles include a fever, cough, red eyes and a red rash on the skin. The infection is most problematic in babies and pregnant women, according to health care professionals.

Two years ago, Allison Coppel’s family was exposed to a measles outbreak from a tutoring center in Highlands Ranch, she said. Her newborn baby wasn’t infected, but she described the experience as “harrowing.”

“Voluntarily putting families in this situation because you choose not to believe science isn’t acceptable to me,” Coppel, a Highlands Ranch resident, wrote on a Facebook inquiry on the topic.

‘Communal effort’

Public health officials, and many parents, agree that choosing to not vaccinate puts individuals with compromised immune systems who can’t vaccinate, or babies who are too young to vaccinate, at risk.

“It’s a tremendous threat when you have a lower vaccination rate,” said Margaret Huffman, community health services director at Jefferson County Public Health. “We are counting on people who can be immunized to be vaccinated.”

Krissy Mosbarger, whose son has autism, said she believes in vaccinating but on a different schedule than the state recommends. After receiving several vaccines at the same time, she noticed changes in her son’s behavior, she said.

“We worked with our pediatrician to stagger the vaccination so they weren’t getting so many at one time after that,” Mosbarger, of Highlands Ranch, said on Facebook.

Vaccines are a victim of their own success, said John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health Department, which covers Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas Counties. Like other health care professionals, his concern is that measles has the potential to explode, threatening the progress made in the past 25 years to eradicate the infection.

Douglas also recognizes that people approach science and public policy differently, he said, adding that there needs to be a middle ground.

“It’s a communal effort,” Douglas said. “Ideally, you want to have people approaching this from a communitarian prospective.”

In the wake of measles outbreaks across several states, including New York, Michigan and Washington, health experts agree that now is a good time for people to discuss vaccination schedules and concerns with their health care providers.

“We all want our children to grow up in a world that is free from preventable diseases,” Elsa Ramirez, an executive officer at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, wrote in a opinion piece emailed to the media. “The single most important thing each of us can do to achieve that goal is to get fully vaccinated – for ourselves, our families, and our communities.”

measles, vaccinations, Colorado, Alex DeWind


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