The New Mexico Department of Health confirmed the state’s first case of measles in nearly five years.
Last week, DOH said a one-year-old child from Sierra County is the first New Mexican infected with the disease since December of 2014.
“We have worked with the clinic that treated the child and the patient’s family to identify people who may have been exposed so we can prevent more cases of the disease,” DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel announced Friday. “We encourage everyone to check whether you and your family have been vaccinated to protect against measles. Immunization is the best tool we have to protect people from measles.”
Measles is highly infectious and was considered eliminated in the United States in 2000, thanks to the development of a vaccine in the 1960s and a concerted effort by the Centers for Disease Control beginning in the late 1970s. At its peak, the disease hospitalized thousands of people and killed hundreds annually.
DOH announced earlier this year that the number of New Mexicans choosing not to vaccinate their children, including for measles, is increasing. Just since 2012, the reported number has increased by 60 percent. In all, 4,441 school-aged children received exemptions from the DOH in 2018.
State law requires the vaccination of children for a number of diseases, including the measles. However, the law also parents to receive exemptions for medical or religious reasons.
The rising number of unvaccinated children worries health officials.
“When we look at vaccination exemption rates for the state, if they’re close to 1 percent, that’s still relatively low compared to many other states,” DOH state epidemiologist Dr. Michael Landen told NM Political Report. “However, that does not mean that close to 1 percent vaccination exemption rates is spread evenly across the state.”
He said there are pockets with higher rates of unvaccinated children in places like Santa Fe, Taos and Los Alamos counties.
He said that keeping the vaccination rate over 95 percent is important for “herd immunity,” which can protect against outbreaks.
In 2015, legislation to address immunization exemptions failed on a party-line vote in a House committee. At the time, Republicans controlled the chamber and all Republican members of the House Health Committee voted against it.
Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, introduced the legislation that year and said she would consider doing so again this year after talking with state officials.
“I will be discussing the current status of immunizations and exemptions in New Mexico with the Department of Health in order to decide whether to reintroduce legislation. Children’s health—and the health of our communities—are always a priority for me,” according to Armstrong.
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the governor’s office wants “everybody to get vaccinated,” but noted that “religious freedom is essential.”
As part of this, he said they are open to “exploring some flexibility within that framework.”
“It’s a little premature to speculate on what that could look like,” Stelnicki said. “I don’t know if it will come up in a subsequent legislative session.“
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, New Mexico’s neighbors Arizona, Colorado and Texas each reported cases of measles. The nearly 850 confirmed cases nationwide so far this year is the most this decade.
These include ten measles outbreaks, which are defined by the CDC as three or more cases, and the CDC says the “outbreaks are linked to travelers who brought measles back from other countries such as Israel, Ukraine, and the Philippines, where large measles outbreaks are occurring.”
The DOH says anyone who needs a vaccine can contact their medical provider or local pharmacy. Vaccines are free for children. The department also says medical providers should report suspected cases of measles to the department’s Epidemiology and Response Division.