Two weeks ago I received a call from my adult daughter with an unusual question: "Do you have my childhood immunization records?" She told me Skyline High teachers had to show proof of having had the MMR vaccine or take a blood test at the Salt Lake Valley Health Department to see if they had immunity to measles.
Olympus High teachers had to do the same or be placed on administrative leave until April 25. This action was necessitated when an Olympus High student without immunization contracted measles on a trip to Poland. From this student, the number of confirmed cases has grown to nine, but the consequences are even greater.
Shortly after the first confirmed case, 25 Olympus High teachers, including two pregnant teachers, and dozens of students were ordered to stay home from April 18 through April 25. Additional infected children from the same family necessitated teachers and students staying home from three other Granite district schools.
Hiring substitute teachers has so far cost Granite School District $8,600. Furthermore, administrators, registrars and school nurses have spent dozens of hours, after school and two Saturdays, locating and notifying all students without immunizations in two high schools, one junior high, and one elementary school.
Many teachers, including my daughter, had the blood test, only to discover they were not immune, necessitating their being vaccinated. If not for spring break last week, many more teachers and students would have been out of school, just weeks before hundreds of students were scheduled to take standardized academic tests, including advanced placement tests which determine college credit.
This measles outbreak has been enormously costly for state and local health departments which administer blood tests, provide vaccines, oversee isolation of confirmed cases and educate the public. Because of recent budget cuts, the unanticipated cost of this outbreak further strains their resources.
The Utah Department of Health reports its cost from April 5 to April 25 at $75,000. Salt Lake Valley Health Department cites its costs to date at more than 2,200 employee hours and $107,000.
Beyond the cost and public health risk are the fear and anger of thousands of people who feel their rights have been compromised by a few.
Although much of the anger is directed at those few, it is also directed at state laws that heavily favor a parent's right to opt out of a mandatory law over that parent's responsibility to protect all children from serious, even fatal, communicable diseases, especially those who cannot be vaccinated because of compromised immune systems.
In 2001 the Utah Legislature tried to make it even easier for parents to be exempt from immunization requirements by having exemption forms available at public schools. Groups like the Eagle Forum and the Church of Scientology lobbied heavily for the change. Fortunately, the bill did not pass. Current law says parents must go to their local health department to get the form where they are counseled on the risks of withholding immunizations.
Although all 50 states have legislation mandating specified vaccines for children, all states grant exemptions for medical reasons, and all but two, Mississippi and West Virginia, grant religious exemptions. Twenty states, including Utah, allow philosophical exemptions for those who object to immunizations because of personal, moral or other beliefs.
Although the personal exemption has been Utah law since 1988, I believe, as a result of this serious outbreak and its far-reaching consequences, the Utah Legislature should re-examine this policy to see if it adequately protects the rights of our children and teachers to work and attend public school in a safe and healthy environment.
Carol Spackman Moss represents District 37, Holladay, in the Utah House of Representatives. Prior to 2001 she taught English for 33 years at Olympus High.