PHOENIX — A growing number of Arizona parents have opted out of getting measles shots for their kindergartners during the pandemic, according to new data compiled by the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Public health experts say that the alarming trend, which escalated over the last three years, is putting more schools at risk of an outbreak of the dangerous childhood disease.
"We don't want to experiment by seeing how fast disease can spread," said Jennifer Tinney, program director for The Arizona Partnership for Immunization, which promotes vaccinations against disease.
"We don't want to see how fast that can happen."
Here's the "experiment" that Tinney and other public health experts are concerned about: What happens when large enough numbers of children have not been immunized to protect them from measles?
That experiment is being conducted right now across Arizona.
Data compiled by DHS from school reports show kindergartners in Maricopa County - the state's largest county - are moving farther and farther away from the 95% measles immunization rate that provides herd immunity against disease.
During the current 2021-22 school year, that rate dipped to 90%, extending a decade-long slide.
Here's why that happened:
The largest spike in at least nine years in the percentage of parents who obtained immunization exemptions for their kids. That rate is now 7%.
"It's the spread of misinformation and concern during the pandemic," Tinney said. "Fear was heightened."
In Arizona, the "personal belief" exemption requires nothing more than a guardian's signature.
"It's easy to fill out the form," Tinney said. For some parents, she added, "it's just easier to fill out the form than it is to go in" to a doctor's office to immunize a child.
Another persistent trend in Arizona: exemptions from immunizations are highest among charter and private schools students. According to DHS, almost 12% of kindergarten pupils at charters in Maricopa County were exempted from immunizations; 11.5% at private schools; and 5% at public schools.
The disease has been so rare because of historically high vaccination rates, and many people have never seen how it can affect a child.
"It can be very, very serious and very, very hard on young children," Tinney said.
"We see a lot of hospitalization with measles cases. But the most concerning part is measles actually goes after part of your immune system."
If your child is behind on immunizations, you can catch up.
"Just start from the last dose that you left off, no matter how long it's been," Tinney said. "You can get caught up pretty quickly."
You can find more information on school immunization data statewide in the Arizona Department of Health Services' database.
Map of school vaccination rates
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