At a time when all-but-eradicated diseases are making a comeback, immunization rates among young children in Wyoming tend to closely mimic national trends, according to an analysis of federal data.
Some years, Wyoming’s rate is lower than the national average. Other years it’s higher.
However, looking at data for four common vaccines tracked by the National Immunization Survey, Wyoming’s rates increase and decrease by more percentage points than the national average.
That could be the result of the margin of error that comes from polling the country’s smallest population state, said Alexia Harrist, the Wyoming state health officer and epidemiologist.
Although signs are good that Wyoming hasn’t significantly deviated from the national norm, that doesn’t necessarily mean Wyoming has escaped the “anti-vax” movement, which inaccurately pushes the belief that vaccines are harmful. Research shows that vaccine reactions are rare and the one study linking vaccinations to autism contained falsified information.
“We are seeing some increases in the amount of waivers (for vaccination) that we’re getting,” Harrist said. “That is concerning that we may be seeing fewer children getting vaccinations.”
Wyoming is one of 45 states and Washington, D.C. where parents can seek waivers from required vaccinations for their children due to religious beliefs.
Dr. Mark Dowell, the Natrona County health officer, remembers the days when he could override a family’s desire to waive their children’s vaccines.
“I made sure that they had good reasons to prove to me there was a medical contraindication to the vaccine,” he said. “(Otherwise) I’d deny it. That’s how I’ve always felt, and I’ll continue to preach that.”
In 2001, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled that public health officers exceeded their authority by denying immunization exemptions. Since then, Dowell and others stopped intervening.
Public health officers stress the concept of “herd” immunity or “community” immunity, in which most people get vaccinated so that the few who cannot – those with cancer or immune deficiencies that prevent them from developing immunity with vaccines – are safe from smallpox, polio and other diseases once thought to be in the Western world’s past, Harrist said.
That Wyoming hasn’t seen a measles outbreak could be luck. Or it could be the result of the Cowboy State’s vast spaces and few people.
“The majority of the time I’m not running into major problems in this county,” Dowell said about Natrona County. “But almost all of the counties in Wyoming are very rural. They don’t have a lot of infectious disease.”
News of outbreaks outside of Wyoming may actually boost immunization rates.
The phone starts ringing at Sheridan County Public Health whenever there is an outbreak. People want the health department to check their records to ensure they’re up-to-date on all their shots, said Debra Harr, the county nurse manager.
“We’ve seen quite a bit more people calling to see if they are current on their measles,” she said.