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South Valley Journal

The facts on vaccine-preventable diseases in the Salt Lake Valley

Jun 20, 2019 02:20PM ● By Heather Lawrence

Estefania Mondragon, clinic lab manager at Midvalley Health Clinic in Midvale, prepares a refrigerated Tdap vaccine. (Heather Lawrence/City Journals)

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

As of June 6, the CDC reported there were 1,022 confirmed cases of measles in the US. In 2016, there were only 86. This growing number puts the country at risk of losing its “eliminated” status for these infectious diseases. Salt Lake Valley experts weigh in on what this means and what we can do to prevent it. 

“It’s painful to hear that statistic,” said Dr. T.W. Jones, a fellow in Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah. “It’s frustrating because these diseases are preventable.”

“We’ve come so far in eliminating dangerous and deadly diseases. A physician’s passion is to see children grow up to be strong and healthy, and instead you see misinformation leading to a possible public health crisis,” Jones said. 

In response to CDC reports, the Utah Department of Health released a statement on May 2 that they are worried about vaccine-preventable diseases in Utah. 

Dr. Allyn Nakashima of the UDOH wrote, “Although we haven’t seen any measles cases in Utah this year, we are seeing a dramatic increase in cases of mumps, one of the diseases preventable with the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine.”

“These mumps cases are a warning that the introduction of measles in the state could result in a large outbreak if we are not vigilant,” Nakashima said.    

Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director of Community Health and Prevention for Intermountain Healthcare, added, “Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90 percent of the people who are not immune and are close to that person will also become infected.”

Sheffield said in an April 11 article in the Deseret News that while measles has yet to hit Utahns, “we’re only one airline flight within a case coming here.” According to CDC data, measles cases have been reported in every state that borders Utah except for Wyoming. (See www.CDC.gov for map and statistics.)

She urged people to consider the social responsibility. “If we’re not getting vaccinated, we’re putting other people at risk,” she said. 

Jones said this concept is called “herd immunity.” “If you get enough people vaccinated, even if there are a few people who can’t get vaccinated, there’s an overwhelming statistical power. It can’t create a chain of transmission,” said Jones. 

Those who “can’t get vaccinated” are not otherwise healthy children whose parents choose not to vaccinate them; they are children who are allergic to the vaccine or already have compromised immune systems. 

“Children getting treated for cancer have weakened immune systems. They can’t get immunized. Measles is one of the most infectious diseases in the world. Worse than small pox; worse than Ebola. If our community doesn’t band together to prevent a measles outbreak, it can be deadly for those individuals,” Jones said. 

As of May 24, the CDC reported that there were 1,002 reported cases of mumps in 42 states, including Utah. “Mumps is associated with inflammation, including inflammation of the testicles and sterility in males. It can cause meningitis,” Jones said. 

“Measles is dangerous. It causes tens of thousands of deaths worldwide every year. People today may think that because the previous generation dealt with it as a childhood illness, it’s not a big deal. But it can and does cause death and disability through pneumonia, encephalitis, coma and brain death. We created a vaccine because it was dangerous,” Jones said. 

Misty McKenna lives in the Midvale/Sandy area and has three school-age children who attend Canyons District schools. “I feel like vaccinating my kids is imperative to their health and also to the health of our community. It makes me nervous for those kids who are too young or allergic and can’t be vaccinated,” McKenna said. 

“It’s sad that due to misinformation, we have to deal with these things that were pretty much eradicated,” McKenna said, referring to fears that persist about vaccines being dangerous or causing autism. 

“It’s been proven that the autism study was flawed and made to say what people wanted it to say. And now here we are dealing with people getting sick and dying,” McKenna said. 

McKenna said she speaks from experience on studying the link between vaccines and autism because her son is on the autism spectrum. “My child was born with autism; he didn’t get it from being vaccinated.”

“Concerns that vaccines cause autism date back to the Wakefield study in the late 1990s,” said Jones. “His report, which was scientifically inaccurate, was limited to a handful of children and was financially fraudulent. He was stripped of his medical license, and there’s no scientific evidence to back up his claim.” 

Jones said he understands the human need to blame something. “When a child has an illness or a serious disorder like autism, of course we want to look for a reason. We want to assign blame. Autism is really complex to define, but we’ve gotten better at screening for it, and that’s one of the reasons we’re seeing an increase in cases,” Jones said. 

Jones said he’s not recommending his patients do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. “I have two young daughters, and they have been fully vaccinated since day one. Every pediatrician I know would be willing to talk to parents who have concerns about vaccines,” Jones said. 

“Social media is often an echo chamber; it’s easy to go online and get information you agree with. I sit down and have a conversation with parents to make sure that we’re sharing the most correct information. I make sure families know I would never endanger their children,” Jones said. 

Schools are major players in the fight to prevent the spread of disease. Canyons School District spokesperson Kirsten Stewart said, “Utah law requires that children from kindergarten to the 12th grade provide proof of immunization in order to attend public school, charter schools and private and parochial schools.” 

That doesn’t mean that all children at a school are immunized. “Per Utah law, parents can ask for exemptions for medical, religious or personal reasons. But in the event of an outbreak, we follow policies that may result in excluding unvaccinated children from school to prevent the spread of disease,” Stewart said.

Teachers and other school staff also need to be immunized or risk missing work days. “In the event of a disease outbreak, school-based employees (in Canyons District) must produce proof of immunization or risk being excluded from work,” Stewart said. 

The district follows Utah Department of Health policy. An exposure of infectious diseases in a school has potential to cause harm to an entire community. “If you or your children aren’t vaccinated, it’s not a risk you’re taking just for yourself, it’s for everyone around you,” Jones said. 

For Jones and those who care for the well-being of children in the Salt Lake Valley, it comes down to the health and safety of children. “As these diseases work their way back into our communities, it weakens us. Part of our success as a civil society is that our children have the freedom to grow up healthy.”