A historic outbreak of measles is bringing the debate over childhood immunizations back to top of the news.

Hands of a scientist, under a sterile hood, preparing a vaccine.

John Keith/National Institutes of Health via Wikimedia Commons

Vaccinations in Pima County



About 900 measles cases have been reported in the United States since the beginning of the year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The outbreak is raising questions about why not all children get vaccinated against measles and other preventable diseases.

The Arizona Partnership for Immunization was launched by the governor’s office in 1992 because of public alarm over a measles outbreak that resulted in deaths of young children. Executive Director Debbie McCune Davis has been part of that organization since 1996. She told The Buzz that lessons learned from the measles outbreak of the 1990s led to updates in medical practice standards to encourage health providers to check children’s immunization status and the creation of several statewide immunization registries (including in Arizona).

“Over the last five to seven years, there’s been concern in the public health community because the immunization levels as reflected by the records that parents provide to schools suggest that fewer kids are being vaccinated,” Davis said, because the rates of exemptions are growing. Another interesting data point revealed by statewide data is the more affluent the families, the less likely they are to immunize,” Davis said.

In Pima County, the immunization rate for children is 95-97% depending on the vaccination. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, about 3% of students have personal belief exemptions.

Davis said there have been several legislative efforts in Arizona this year to both eliminate and expand personal belief exemptions from vaccinations. None of those bills have advanced this year, but Davis said anti-vaccine groups have said they’ll return next year. Gov. Doug Ducey has said that he will not sign bills that increase exemptions for vaccines.

The measles outbreak has not hit Arizona hard, but earlier this month the Pima County Health Department announced someone with measles traveled through the Tucson International Airport at the end of April. Deputy Director Paula Mandel talked with The Buzz about how the health department investigates cases like that one and how it’s responding to the hepatitis A outbreak currently affecting certain parts of the Tucson community, particularly the homeless population.

While measles is the focus of attention in the current immunization debate, it is far from the only recommended childhood immunization. Andrew Arthur is director of pediatric medicine at El Rio Community Health Center and has been a practicing pediatrician there for 26 years. He says there are many things parent can do to keep their kids safe and healthy, including breastfeeding, avoiding cigarette smoke, good nutrition, sleep, hand-washing and immunizations.

“The childhood immunizations that we give are the most important public health tool and innovation of the twentieth century,” Arthur said. He told The Buzz how he counsels parents who have doubts or questions about vaccines, and explained how the success of vaccines is one reason why modern parents don’t feel as threatened by vaccine-preventable diseases that have largely been eliminated from the country.

El Rio offers walk-in vaccine service for low or no cost to the community.

Tucson resident Leslie Maier lost her son to meningitis when he was 17. She’s now president of the National Meningitis Association. Maier says parents and pediatricians should make sure kids get in for annual physical exams and stay up to date on their vaccinations, even into their teenage and young adult years.

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