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State officials: Pa. lagging in measles shots amid national outbreak

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A doctor prepares to administer a measles vaccination to a child in Miami Children's Hospital on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015.
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A bottle containing a measles vaccine is displayed on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, in Miami Children's Hospital.

With a measles outbreak affecting more than 100 people in 14 states, Pennsylvania health officials worry that children statewide are not getting their measles vaccines on time.

About 95 percent of American kindergarten kids had the recommended two doses of the measles, mumps and rubella combined vaccine during the 2013-2014 school year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in Pennsylvania, that number is about 86 percent, according to state health department data. In the Pittsburgh region, the lowest MMR vaccination rate is 63 percent in Butler County.

“Even highly educated parents don’t get why we vaccinate when we do — it’s when these diseases kill,” said Dr. Tibisay Villalobos, a pediatric infectious disease specialist in the Lehigh Valley.

Children typically receive the first MMR vaccine around their first birthday and the second between the ages of 4 and 6, health officials said Tuesday during an informational call with the Pennsylvania Medical Society.

Measles was eliminated from the United States in 2000, but an outbreak at the Disneyland amusement park in California has stoked concerns that lagging vaccine rates in certain parts of the country could signal a comeback. There has been one case in Pennsylvania so far this year, in Cumberland County.

During a congressional hearing convened by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, top government health officials called the measles vaccine very safe and highly effective.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the National Institutes of Health, said the decision to vaccinate against measles “is really a slam-dunk.”

County vaccine data shows MMR vaccination rates reported to the state in kindergarten and seventh grade during the 2013-2014 school year varied from 40 percent in Potter County to 80 percent in Huntingdon County.

Allegheny County data showed a 97 percent vaccination rate.

Most counties reported vaccination rates above 90 percent, but Dr. John Goldman, an infectious disease specialist in Harrisburg, said a 95 percent rate is needed to achieve the herd immunity that keeps infants and those with immune disorders safe.

“You can literally get measles by walking in a room that has had measles (in it),” he said. “If people aren’t vaccinated, it will spread.”

Dr. Mary Pagnotto, a pediatrician in Cranberry, said lack of access to vaccines plays a major role for people in Butler County outside Cranberry. Her office might be a 30-minute drive for some patients who don’t bring their children to the doctor until they become sick.

Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said that when doctors diagnose a case of measles, it is often because someone brought it into the country from a place where the disease is endemic and people might not be vaccinated.

Pagnotto wonders whether the low rate of kindergarten MMR vaccines in Butler County — 63 percent — is a function of when the county’s school systems report their numbers to the state. By the time Butler County children are in 7th grade, they’ve caught up — 98 percent have had both doses of MMR.

“A lot of those folks, they’re starting school at age 5 and not getting that booster done,” she said of the second shot.

But the fear of vaccines lingers in the partly affluent, partly rural county.

Cristal Elder, who has two sons with autism in Butler, said many of her classmates from high school opt against vaccines. The largest number of exemptions described in state data for Butler County — and many others in Pennsylvania — are philosophical in nature.

“Everyone’s afraid of what’s in the vaccination,” she said, referring to a now-debunked study in the British journal The Lancet linking the measles vaccine to autism. “I don’t know where the fear comes from.”

Elder, a volunteer for Autism Speaks, said neither she nor the organization believes there is a link between autism and vaccinations.

She did, however, choose to spread out her sons’ vaccinations.

“Anybody’s who’s asked us, we’ve always thought, if you have concerns, split it into three different shots,” she said. “There’s a million and one things that could cause autism. We have never thought it was vaccines.”

A better understanding of the vaccine schedule and how schools report that data is the focus of Wilbert Van Panhuis’ research as an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh.

He said county-level data is a good start but it doesn’t show with much accuracy what communities and schools are successfully vaccinating.

He said vaccination numbers are a good start, but the fact that Allegheny County reported no cases this year is a testament to the overall coverage. Hacker said there hasn’t been a municipality in Allegheny County with a large infectious disease outbreak.

Dr. Joseph Aracri, chairman of pediatrics for North Side-based Allegheny Health Network, said that in his Green Tree clinic, most patients follow the recommended vaccine schedules.

“People are becoming more and more in tune to the fact that MMR (vaccine) doesn’t cause autism,” he said.

The clinic turns away patients who won’t vaccinate their children, he said.

“We really want our population to be vaccinated,” he said. “You’re going to be educated every single time. You will get that fight every time you come in.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Megha Satyanarayana is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7991 or [email protected]

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