Outbreaks of measles are popping up around the country, and more parents in New Mexico are requesting vaccine exemptions for their kids. But most kids here are getting vaccinated for measles.
When Gill Woodall was eight years old he broke out in a rash. Then things got really bad, really fast.
“The fever was very, very high. It was well over 104,” he recalled in his office in Albuquerque. “I was in and out of consciousness until they threw me in the ice tub.”
Woodall had measles. This was back in the 1960’s. He still doesn’t know how he got sick, but measles is incredibly contagious and the vaccine wasn’t widely available yet.
In 1964 nearly half a million kids in the U.S. caught measles. More than 400 kids died.
Woodall, who’s in his 60s now, said that was the sickest he’s ever been in his life. The whole experience was so bad, it’s seared into his memory.
“I remember to this day what my bedroom looked like and how feverish I felt,” he said. “Even as a kid I thought, ‘I’m really sick and I might not make it through this.’”
Vaccines helped eliminate this disease in the U.S. around 2000, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say outbreaks in recent years have happened because people travelled to other countries, came back infected and spread the disease to people here who weren’t vaccinated.
Lance Chilton said some folks aren’t taking measles seriously because it hasn’t really been a problem in their lifetime. He’s a pediatrician in Albuquerque.
“I think it’s inevitable when people are thinking that they’re free of the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases,” he said.
Chilton said the spread of false information on the internet is feeding ideas that vaccines cause more harm than good.
“I would hope that parents would look at a balanced view of immunizations, which I believe would show they are safe and effective,” he said.
More than 30 states have confirmed measles cases this year. New Mexico became one of them last month when a 1-year-old in Sierra County was infected. So far it’s the only case in the state.
“Measles is one of those diseases where one has to have really high immunization rates in the community in order to prevent the unvaccinated ones from getting it,” Chilton said.
Kids in New Mexico are required to get vaccinated for measles before starting school and 95 percent of kindergarteners here got their measles shots for the 2017-2018 school year. That figure hasn’t changed much in the last decade.
Anita Hett, lead nurse for Santa Fe Public Schools, said there’s a reason why kids have to be vaccinated when they start school.
“The germs spread very easily in the school setting because of kids sneezing and coughing and touching objects that might be infected,” she said.
But more and more parents in New Mexico are choosing not to vaccinate their kids for measles. You can request an exemption for medical issues or religious beliefs and you have to provide some documentation. The state received 4,400 requests last year. That’s up 60% since 2012.
Hett said she’s dealt with parents who don’t vaccinate their kids for all kinds of reasons.
"I believe that every parent wants what’s best for their child, so I believe the anti-vaxxers are truly doing what they feel is right for their child,” she said. “But they’re basing that decision on misinformation.”
Still, 94% of kids in the U.S. got measles vaccinations last year.
In New Mexico, kids’ vaccines, including for measles, are free. You can get your kids vaccinated at local public health offices or you can go to the health department website to find a map of providers.
Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.