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SALT LAKE CITY — Public health officials in Utah want to reverse the anti-vaccination trend before it's too late, especially concerning measles, mumps and rubella, which were all believed to have been eradicated in the United States decades ago.
Six cases of mumps have been confirmed in central Utah, with at least five more awaiting confirmation of laboratory tests, the Utah Department of Health reported on Thursday.
In addition, at least 24 states, including some neighboring Utah, are experiencing measles outbreaks. It is the highest concentration of the disease in the United States in 25 years, said Dr. Joseph Miner, executive director of Utah's health department.
"These outbreaks should not be happening," he said, adding that one of the greatest achievements of public health in the past century is the advent of immunizations.
But not everyone is utilizing them — and it shows.
"Too many of us are inexperienced with the diseases we are talking about and ignorant of the seriousness of them," Miner said. "These diseases are very serious, causing death and disability."
More than 700 cases of measles have been confirmed across the U.S., not yet in Utah, but Miner said it is imminent.
"We need to improve our vaccination rates," said Dr. Allyn Nakashima, an epidemiologist with the health department. She said public perception of vaccinations is likely being changed by social media, which "may not be scientific."
It is believed that many people could be susceptible to the potentially dangerous virus in Utah, as the state is already experiencing an outbreak of mumps. The two can be prevented with the same single vaccine — the MMR vaccine.
Both viruses were believed to have been eradicated in the U.S. since about 2000.
Measles has yet to hit the Beehive State, Nakashima said, adding that Utah "may not escape that bullet."
"Many parents and doctors alive today have never seen a case of measles," said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Primary Children's Hospital. He has worked in countries in Africa where the disease is rampant.
"It's a big deal," he said, adding that "the greatest gift you can give your children" is immunity to a potentially life-altering or life-ending illness.
Infants and toddlers typically get a first dose of the MMR vaccine at 12 months and are not fully vaccinated until age 5. They are particularly susceptible to the disease, as are pregnant women and anyone with immune-compromising conditions. Anyone planning to travel abroad, however, is also at high-risk of getting measles.
"Your chance of being exposed is signficant," Pavia said.
Measles typically shows up first with fever and fatigue, a cough, runny nose and red eyes. Sometimes there are spots in the mouth, but then, the tell-tale sign of measles infection is a whole-body rash, said Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director of community health and prevention at Intermountain Healthcare.
She said complications can arise from measles, as well as mumps and rubella, that can be life-threatening. One in 20 kids with measles, Sheffield said, will get pneumonia, and one in 1,000 experience encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, which can lead to a variety of problems.
"We cannot cure measles. We cannot cure rubella. We cannot cure mumps. We can only prevent them with a vaccine," she said, adding that effects of all three viruses can be devastating if not prevented.
"All of us must choose to immunize, not only to protect our own children, but more importantly to protect infants and children of others, friends and neighbors, too young to immunize or have lost their immunity due to other diseases," Miner said.