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Utah has the third-highest rate of kindergarten vaccine exemptions in the US

A young child in a doctor's office wearing a brightly-colored bag. A nurse out of shot is putting an adhesive bandage over where the child got a vaccine.

Kindergarten vaccine exemptions are increasing across the country with Utah having one of the highest rates of exemptions, according to a recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

School children across the U.S. are required to receive certain vaccinations before they start kindergarten. In Utah, there are six sets of required vaccines: five shots of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTaP), four of polio, two of measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), two of Hepatitis A, three of Hepatitis B and two of chickenpox.

However, parents can get vaccine exemptions for their children based on medical, religious or personal reasons. According to the CDC’s report, those exemptions increased in 40 states and Washington D.C. over the last school year.

Utah had the third-highest rate of exemptions in the nation at about 8.1%. It is one of 10 states that exceeded a 5% exemption rate, compared to two states just three years ago.

Generally, 95% is the amount of vaccination coverage needed to decrease the risk and intensity of outbreaks. The national rate is currently 93%.

Reasons for exemptions

The report didn’t explore reasons for the increase in vaccine exemptions, but according to Rich Lakin, immunization director with the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, the vast majority are religious or personal reasons rather than medical.

“Medical exemptions are very rare, and those come from the individual’s physician,” Lakin said. “Perhaps somebody that's going through cancer may not be able to receive a vaccine at that time, just because their immune system is already down.”

Exemption reasons may be as simple as the convenience of exemptions compared to vaccinating children, or parents with children in online schools perceiving vaccinations as less essential. Others, however, are rooted in the many misconceptions around vaccines.

Misconceptions about vaccines

“There has been an increase in skepticism and misinformation about COVID vaccines, and that could filter over into kindergarten immunizations,” Lakin said.

Misconceptions include perceived health impacts of vaccines, that healthy people aren’t at risk of getting sick, or that vaccines contain government tracking devices, all of which Lakin says aren’t true.

The misconception that vaccines cause autism, based on a small 1998 study, is still prevalent as well. However, the study was retracted and the author’s license revoked for falsifying evidence. Later studies have confirmed there is no link between vaccines and autism.

The effectiveness of vaccines may have also accidentally created a double-edged sword, Lakin said, where people no longer understand how important vaccinations are.

“When you go back and look at history before vaccinations, millions of people died from smallpox, millions of people died from polio, millions of people died from measles, mumps, rubella,” Lakin said. “And the problem is that ... they did such a great job in vaccinations that people don't see these diseases like they used to anymore, and they don't think they exist.”

Vaccines have eradicated some diseases in the U.S. or worldwide, such as smallpox, but the ones kindergarteners are required to get vaccinations for still exist, and some can pose serious health risks or even be fatal for children.

For more information about vaccination requirements and immunizations in general, visit the Department of Health and Human Service’s website.

Duck is a general reporter and weekend announcer at UPR, and is studying broadcast journalism and disability studies at USU. They grew up in northern Colorado before moving to Logan in 2018, so the Rocky Mountain life is all they know. Free time is generally spent with their dog, Monty, listening to podcasts, reading or wishing they could be outside more.