Why are so many parents in Wadena and Renville counties putting their children at risk of contracting measles, polio and other serious but vaccine-preventable illnesses?
With measles cases now confirmed in 10 states, there’s an urgency to ensuring that as many Minnesota kids as possible get potentially lifesaving childhood immunizations. Drilling down into county-by-county data provided by the state Department of Health is an alarming exercise. While 100 percent of kindergartners in three counties are fully vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella, others fall far short in protecting kids.
In that group, Wadena and Renville counties stand out — and not in a good way. The percentage of kindergartners in these rural counties who have had both of the recommended measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) shots falls below 90 percent. Sadly, the same holds true for polio, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. An even deeper look at the data suggests this is not a health care access issue. It’s the result of their families making an ill-informed decision. About 10 percent of kindergartners in Wadena County, located in north-central Minnesota, have parents who obtained a “nonmedical” exemption for all shots required by state school immunization laws. In southwest Minnesota’s Renville County, it’s about 11 percent.
A nonmedical exemption generally means that parents have exercised their right under state law to opt out due to personal beliefs. And while the statewide average for this opt-out hovers around 2 percent, there’s wide variation. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has long argued that lawmakers should change the law and allow exemptions only for medical reasons. Doing so has become especially critical as vaccine conspiracy theorists wage disinformation campaigns. Regrettably, lawmakers have yet to take that step, even after a 2017 measles outbreak here, with the reluctance perhaps tied to political influence. A woman who serves as the Minnesota Republican Party’s finance chair has long been one of the state’s most prominent voices sowing immunization doubts. Controversy also erupted recently when prominent vaccine skeptics were appointed to a new state autism council launched by state Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who chairs a key health committee.
The stalemate over tightening Minnesota vaccine exemptions is likely to continue even with the World Health Organization declaring “vaccine hesitancy” a top global health threat. Fortunately, Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, has introduced a sensible bill that offers a step forward and a chance to find common ground. The bill, HF 1182, would establish a two-year grant program to support outreach about vaccines’ value. No funding amount has yet been designated, but health experts agree that less than $1 million could robustly fund the initiative.
The Editorial Board recently called for an outreach campaign to counter vaccine disinformation. The grant program in Freiberg’s bill heeds this alarm and takes a logical implementation approach. As the county data show, vaccination rates vary widely. Good job to Lake of the Woods, Traverse and Lac qui Parle counties, all of which hit the 100 percent MMR rate for kindergartners in 2017, the last year for which state data are available. But other counties lag far behind. In Sibley County, less than 90 percent of kindergartners were fully protected against measles, polio and other preventable diseases, though the data are unclear whether this is due to parents’ opting out.
A grant program would encourage a tailored approach to vaccine outreach and education efforts. This is important when there’s variation in rates not only between counties but between communities. Vaccination rates can lag in immigrant or religious groups, such as the Amish. After a precipitous dip in MMR coverage, the state’s Somali-American community became the epicenter of Minnesota’s 2017 measles outbreak. Different outreach messages are needed across the state. A grant program would allow local advocates to take the lead.
On Monday, several advocacy groups sponsored a talk in Minneapolis by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who wields his famous political surname to spread vaccine disinformation. Among the sponsors’ various causes: highlighting vaccine side effects and promoting raw, unpasteurized milk’s supposed health benefits. Freiberg’s bill would help counter these efforts with credible information and encourage parents to protect children from diseases that once took far too many young lives. Republican legislators in particular should support the bill. This is a chance to counter growing concerns that theirs is the anti-vaccine party.