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Once in next-to-last place, Utah has climbed to 41st nationally in the rate of young children getting immunizations.

Each year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranks the states on how well children 19 to 35 months of age do in adhering to the agency's standards for vaccines.

Utah's jump came thanks to the varicella virus vaccine for the prevention of chickenpox, one of the most common childhood diseases.

In 2005, the CDC included it in its series of recommendations, and Utahns have quickly adapted.

"We were a little bit surprised," said Rebecca Ward, education outreach coordinator for the Utah Immunization Program with the Utah Department of Health. "The varicella kind of hurt other states and caused their rates to drop. We did pretty well."

The Food and Drug Administration [FDA] approved the vaccine in 1995, and all Utah children now are required to have it before entering school.

The statewide varicella vaccination rate for children in the 19 months to 35 months window, was 81.2 percent. No one knows exactly why the rate is higher here, but Ward said it might be because more doctors are encouraging parents to cut the risk of infection at earlier ages.

Murray pediatrician Bill Cosgrove, who chairs the Utah Every Child by Two Immunization Coalition, is pleased, but said much more work needs to be done. He said Utah's showing mainly improved because other states fell behind in their efforts with the chickenpox vaccine.

"We can't pat ourselves on the back too much because 28 percent of our children are still more than six months behind" with their immunizations, Cosgrove said. "It's a good idea to celebrate that we're not last anymore, but families have to be convinced that it's a good idea to immunize their children. It's still an ongoing battle."

Cosgrove said toddlers need more than 20 shots and it is a continuing challenge to get parents to return for more rounds. Some lose track of which shots their kids need and others are resistant, concerned about safety.

The FDA's guidelines call for a single injection of the vaccine for children 12 months to 12 years old. Roughly 3.7 million Americans are affected by chickenpox each year, with more than 90 percent of the cases occurring in youth under 15 years old.

Normally mild, there are about 9,300 chickenpox-related hospitalizations and 50 to 100 deaths annually in the U.S.

In addition to varicella, the basic childhood immunization series consists of: 4 DTaP (Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis), 3 Polio, 1 MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella), 3 HIB (Haemophilus influenzae type b) and 3 Hepatitis B.

Utah also saw an increase in children receiving the Hepatitis B vaccine - up by 7.6 percent over 2004.

"Certainly we'd like to see higher rates, but we're happy with varicella not bringing us down," Ward said.

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