You may have seen a scary headline about measles recently. It’s been confirmed: there are two measles cases in Idaho, both from Latah County. This comes in the midst of the largest outbreak of measles in the country since the disease was declared eliminated in 2000.
Since Jan. 1, there have been more than 1,000 cases of measles in the U.S., transported unwittingly by contagious persons wherever they go; county to county and state to state. We saw in the winter and spring how quickly measles spread across Washington and Oregon, flourishing in areas where immunization rates were low.
In order to prevent a disease from spreading, it is recommended that 95 percent of the population be immunized, thereby achieving herd immunity.
Unfortunately, some school districts in Idaho have immunization rates as low as 33.3 percent. These school districts are not far from Latah County, where these two cases were confirmed. Neighboring Idaho, Kootenai, and Shoshone counties all have low enough rates to allow for the rapid spread of disease.
Idaho is one of 18 U.S. states that allows religious/other exemptions from vaccines, and the exemption rate for Idaho children enrolled in kindergarten was 7.7 percent during the 2018-19 school year. This is an increase from 7.1 percent the previous school year, making the confirmed cases of measles in Idaho all the more concerning.
Latah County had an 11.1 percent exemption rate for the 2018-19 school year. Neighboring Shoshone County’s rate was 18.4 percent, and just a few counties over in Idaho County, the exemption rate was a staggering 21.8 percent. When immunization rates drop and more students head to school with vaccine exemptions, counties like these have little to no herd immunity.
Vaccines are a community’s greatest line of defense to protect the most vulnerable among us, whether they are infants too young to get vaccinated or others who are immunocompromised, like those going through chemotherapy. When measles, a highly contagious virus, spreads through counties that have low vaccination rates, many vulnerable Idahoans will be in danger.
The reality is that most of Idahoans believe vaccines are effective at preventing disease. However, Idahoans who support loosening immunization requirements are much more likely to be active on the issue.
These headlines are scary, but there are actions you can take to protect your family and your community by contributing to herd immunity. If your children are not vaccinated, get them to the doctor ASAP. If they are, spread the word about the importance of community immunity and the effectiveness of the MMR vaccine. Be an active and vocal advocate on this issue so we can help all Idahoans protect themselves, their children, and their entire community from preventable disease.
Karen Sharpnack is the Idaho Immunization Coalition executive director.