Vaccine Facts: What will happen if the measles comes to Vermont?

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) It's the law in Vermont that kids have to be vaccinated or provide an exemption form that lets them opt out of getting a shot.

While the majority of students are vaccinated for measles in Vermont, the health commissioner says he's worried about pockets of low or no vaccinations in schools.

"Definitely there's a heightened concern in our family where, you know, for young kids or people with compromised immune systems," said Meghan Bellavance of Burlington.

Bellavance is a mom to two young kids and is keeping an eye on the news stories about measles outbreaks and vaccination in general.

"It's something that me and my girlfriends are talking about a lot," she said.

The measles isn't in Vermont but health commissioner Dr. Mark Levine says it's only a matter of time.

"Every border to Vermont has had cases," Levine noted.

There are 114 schools below the 95 percent vaccination rate recommended to keep kids measles-free. Fifty-four of them are independent schools.

"There's a selection bias, you profess, who have beliefs that will not allow them to get their kids vaccinated, they gravitate to those schools," Levine said.

He says that could help fuel an outbreak.

"We'd hate to see a school with a 40 percent vaccination rate for MMR have one case introduced, because that would mean that would spread throughout that entire school because so many of the kids would not be vaccinated," Levine said.

The lowest of the Waldorf Schools reported a rate of MMR vaccinations at 43.8 percent, although the others were well below 95 percent, too.

In a statement, the board chair of Orchard Valley said the association's "educational objectives do not include avoidance of, or resistance to, childhood immunization." They encourage parents to weigh civic responsibility but say that it's ultimately up to the parents in consultation with their family physician to decide whether to immunize.

The lowest MMR vaccination rate at a public school is in the Windham Central Supervisory Union -- Windham Elementary at 62.5 percent. That's followed by another WCSU school, Jamaica Village has 71.7 percent. Those schools also have the lowest overall rates reported this past year in all public schools.

Superintendent Bill Anton says school nurses saw this and jumped into action. He says they've already seen improvements in overall vaccination rates since the numbers were published, although he couldn't give me specifics.

"The main driver of increasing vaccination rates for us, what's in our ability, is education and sharing information from the CDC, having a nurse available for one-on-one consultations for people who have questions," Anton said.

If measles cases start popping up in Vermont, Commissioner Levine could appeal to the governor's office to declare a public health crisis. That would give the health department the legal power to shut down schools or keep unvaccinated kids from going.

"People forget that when the measles was really prevalent in this country, 500 people a year died from the measles, 50,000 or more were hospitalized with the measles or complications of the measles. I mean, it was a real public health problem," Levine said.

Outside of a public health crisis, the health department doesn't have enforcement power in the school system.

Levine says they've launched an awareness campaign to get kids vaccinated. It relies on spreading information about vaccination numbers among school nurses and staff and pediatricians.

"Have them understand strategies that could work successfully to get kids vaccinated that, again, may not have been vaccinated before," Levine said.

He's also targeting parents.

The biggest thing he says they're up against?

"Parental and family decision-making is based on frank misinformation, or at least a lack of balance between the misinformation that's out there, much of it on social media sites, with credible information," Levine said.

He says he hopes people hearing that he's concerned-- concerns them.

"We don't want Vermont to have some of the statistics that other places have had," Levine said.

Click here to see your child's school vaccination rate.