PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island has a high vaccination rate for measles overall, but the numbers vary widely among individual communities and schools, according to a Target 12 review of data.
R.I. Department of Health data shows more than 97% of kindergarteners in the state have received the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella.
Dr. James McDonald, the department’s medical director, said he’s encouraged by the data as the country grapples with the largest measles outbreak in the U.S. since 1992. Rhode Island has not had a confirmed case of measles so far, though Massachusetts and Connecticut have.
“It’s my feeling that we haven’t seen a case of measles in Rhode Island because we have really good vaccine rates,” McDonald said.
While last year there were just 372 cases of measles in the U.S, so far this year the highly contagious virus has sickened more than 1,077 in 28 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Health officials fear the number will continue to climb.
Breaking down the data
Across Rhode Island, the communities with the lowest rates of fully vaccinated kindergarteners are Bristol, Foster, and Johnston, with each town below 90%.
To be fully vaccinated, a kindergartener must have five doses of diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccine, three doses of hepatitis B vaccine, two doses of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, four doses of polio vaccine, and two doses of varicella vaccine.
The health department also tracks immunization rates at individual schools, both public and private, where MMR rates swing from from just 33% up to 100%.
“When you see the vaccine rates that are lower in a community, there’s a greater risk,” McDonald explained. “I’m not sure it rises to a health concern because our rates overall are still quite good, but there is a little bit more risk.”
The health department is doing outreach to schools where MMR vaccination rates are lower than 95%, and parents of school-aged children received a letter encouraging them to make sure their kids have received two doses of the MMR vaccine.
Dr. McDonald said he knows it can be a tough conversation to convince vaccine-hesitant parents to vaccinate their children based on federal and state guidelines.
“If there’s one thing I think this national conversation needs, is respect and listening,” he said.
Maddalena Cirignotta, a local mother of three, says none of her children have received the MMR vaccine.
“I’m not anti-vaccine. I’m pro-choice,” she told Target 12. “It’s not fun. Nobody wants the measles. I’m not saying that there can’t be adverse events, but there are also risks to the MMR vaccine.”
“I didn’t like the idea of a triple live virus vaccine,” she added.
Data shows injuries from vaccines are extremely rare.
Target 12 reviewed information from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which shows more than 125 million doses of measles vaccines were given in the U.S. between 2006 and 2017. Only 143 were compensated for injuries.
Cirignotta’s children don’t qualify for medical exemptions, so she used religious exemptions to decline the MMR vaccine for them.
“I’m actually not a religious person,” she said. “It is my truly sincerely held belief that certain vaccines are not in the best interest of my children.”
Cirignotta, who has lived in Europe, said she believes the U.S. vaccine schedule is too aggressive.
“There are many countries with vaccine schedules that look extremely different from ours and they’re doing perfectly fine,” Cirignotta said.
Before the measles vaccine was used, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Of those, 48,000 were hospitalized and an estimated 400 to 500 people died annually.
Symptoms of measles include fever, cough, runny nose, red eyes, and tiny red spots that start at the head and spread to the rest of the body.
“Because the vaccines are so safe and so effective, we’ve lost the historical perspective of how bad these vaccine preventable diseases are,” McDonald said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that vaccine hesitancy is one of the 10 threats to global health in 2019.
In Rhode Island, the Department of Health tracks and reports all required immunizations.
More than 95% of Rhode Island kindergarteners have received all of the vaccines the state requires. By 7th grade, however, that number drops to about 75%.
“When we look at our vaccine rates in Rhode Island, they are really quite good,” McDonald said. “In fact, in some ways they are some of the best in the country.”
McDonald attributes the drop between kindergarten and 7th grade to the HPV vaccine, which is meant to protect against cervical cancer.
Only Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., mandate the HPV vaccine for a child to attend school, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The law to add it to the vaccine schedule was controversial when it passed in Rhode Island in 2015.
“As children get to 7th grade, if they haven’t had at least one of those vaccines, then they’re not considered fully immunized,” McDonald said. “Keep in mind, that doesn’t mean they haven’t had the other vaccines. They’ve had the MMR vaccine. They’ve had the chickenpox vaccine.”
Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban religious exemptions for vaccines. It was introduced by Rep. Andy Varagas and has 34 co-sponsors, but has not been voted out of committee.
This month, New York eliminated the religious exemption for vaccine requirements.