Matt Rourke, Associated Press
A line of mostly students wait to enter a vaccination clinic amid a mumps outbreak on the Temple University campus in Philadelphia, Wednesday, March 27, 2019.

While authorities in Sanpete County grapple with how to keep kids safe from a mumps outbreak that’s so far affected only a small number of public school students, health authorities statewide need to be on alert for the likelihood of more outbreaks of communicable disease as a result of injudicious attitudes about the safety of long-practiced and thoroughly validated immunization tools.

The anti-vaccine movement was sparked in the late 1990s by now-debunked research suggesting a link between immunization shots and autism. Despite the spurious science behind it, the movement has morphed into something of a parents’ rights issue, creating awkward tension between those who would exempt their children from immunizations for ideological reasons and those who recognize the need for widespread use of vaccines to keep the larger population safe.

It’s up to Utah’s public health agencies and school officials to stringently enforce existing policies requiring immunizations among public school children, and to judiciously weigh applications by parents to exempt children based on health, personal or religious grounds. It may also be a good time for a public health education campaign as to the real facts and countering mythologies about vaccination.

State law recognizes the legitimacy of various reasons why a parent may seek to exempt their children from a vaccine, and it also embraces the value of widespread inoculation. Vaccines protect not only individuals, but entire communities by creating herd immunity, which prevents widespread outbreaks. For herd immunity to be achieved with highly infectious diseases like measles or mumps, at least 90-95 percent of the population must be vaccinated.

There was a time when upwards of 90 percent of public school kids had received vaccinations. In the Sanpete County outbreak, school officials say as many as 20 percent of enrolled students have either not been vaccinated or cannot show proof of immunization. Now, sadly, many of those children are being forced to stay home from school for weeks or longer, until the mumps risk subsides.

For parents, there are easily accessible resources for viewing scientific writings on the subject, offered by organizations like the nonprofit Autism Science Foundation and the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Yet, skepticism about immunization remains, fueled by anecdote and slanted coverage on social media.

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Fears of perceived negative effects from immunization have led to a steady decline in the percentage of kids receiving vaccinations, particularly the standard vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella. After the MMR dose program began in 1989, mumps cases dropped by 99 percent. Since 2006, there have been several outbreaks, many in recent months.

As medical science continues to make progress against diseases like cancer and diabetes, it is odd and disturbing to see a rebirth of diseases with vaccines available that virtually eliminate the threats.