Measles case in Sierra County spurs look at New Mexico vaccine laws

Dan Boyd
Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — New Mexico has dodged the widespread measles outbreaks that have hit some states, but the confirmation of the state's first measles case in nearly four years could spark new scrutiny of the state's immunization laws.

A Democratic state lawmaker said this week that she's considering revisiting legislation that would tighten the state's current allowable immunization exemptions — as the number of New Mexicans opting not to vaccinate their children has steadily increased in recent years.

As of 2018, there were 4,441 school-age children with immunization exemptions on file with the state Department of Health. That's up more than 30% from the 3,322 children with exemptions in 2014.

MORE: 1-year-old child from Sierra County contracts measles, health officials say

Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, said she plans to meet with Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel to discuss immunization-related matters in light of the measles concerns and suggested that New Mexico's immunization exemption laws should be examined, along with other issues.

"I think that ought to be on the table," Armstrong told the Albuquerque Journal.

MORE:Measles is on the rise. Pediatrician says vaccines are best prevention

Under New Mexico law, there are three types of allowable immunization exemptions: a medical exemption that requires a physician's certification, a religious exemption that requires a written affirmation from a religious leader and a religious exemption that parents or legal guardians can submit.

The largest increase in New Mexico immunization exemptions in recent years is attributable to forms submitted by parents, said state epidemiologist Dr. Michael Landen with the Department of Health.

Removing exemptions a 'tricky balance'

A 2015 bill proposed by Armstrong would have eliminated that category of exemption, but the legislation generated opposition and failed to advance out of its first assigned committee.

Armstrong acknowledged that such an effort is a "tricky balance" and said there may have to be a different approach to the issue.

MORE: Why Big Pharma distrust is fueling anti-vaxxer movement, playing role in measles outbreak

Currently, there are three states — California, Mississippi and West Virginia — that do not allow religious or personal belief exemptions for immunizations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

There are also 16 states that allow personal belief — or nonreligious — exemptions to required vaccinations, and attempts in states including Washington to remove such exemptions have been met with fierce resistance.

Rep. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, a medical doctor who previously participated in a vaccination program in Africa through the World Health Organization, said he supports educational efforts to increase vaccination awareness.

But he said he would oppose efforts to reduce parents' ability to decide whether their children get vaccines.

"I would not support a government-mandated vaccine," Schmedes said. "When the government is telling you what you must put in your body, that gets a little sci-fi scary."

New Mexico immunization rates

The New Mexico measles case confirmed last week by the state Health Department is in a 1-year-old in Sierra County. It is the state's first confirmed measles case since December 2014.

State health officials have been tight-lipped about the case's details, and Landen said it's unclear how the child contracted the measles virus.

Overall, although the total number of New Mexico children with immunization exemptions filed with the Health Department is less than 1% of the total number of school-age children statewide. Landen said some schools appear to have vaccination rates of less than 95% — either because of allowable exemptions among students or because the schools' records aren't kept up to date.

"In those situations, we would be concerned about a sustained measles transmission," Landen told the Albuquerque Journal.

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He said having immunization rates of 95% or higher is preferable because it provides a "herd immunity" effect in which sustained outbreaks are less likely to occur.

"We have been very fortunate that one measles case has not turned into an outbreak," Landen said.

He also said that percentage-wise, the largest pockets of nonvaccinated children in New Mexico are in Santa Fe, Taos and Los Alamos counties.

Measles outbreak

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease with symptoms that include a high fever, runny nose and, eventually, a rash that can spread across the body.

It was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000 but has made a comeback, with 880 cases nationwide this year.

MORE: Measles cases continue climb; 'eliminated' disease see highest total in 25 years

New York has reportedly had the largest outbreak, but other communities with pockets of unvaccinated people could also be at risk, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

New Mexico health officials are not currently investigating any additional possible measles cases in the state, Landen said.

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