UWO staff, students urged to check immunization records

Bethanie Gengler, News Editor

With more than 10,000 students starting classes this fall at the UW Oshkosh campuses, health officials are encouraging students, staff and faculty to check their immunization records as the United States faces the worst measles outbreak in 27 years.

Measles is a highly contagious respiratory infection that causes flu-like symptoms and a skin rash covering large portions of the body. Complications from measles can cause brain swelling, hospitalization and even death.

The development of the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine, or MMR, combined with widespread immunization policies, had virtually eliminated measles from the United States by 2000.

However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of Aug. 29, 2019, there have been 1,234 measles cases reported nationwide. Associate Professor of Biology and Immunologist Courtney Kurtz said the increase in measles cases can be tied to vaccine hesitancy.

A 1998 study, which has since been proven false, suggested the MMR vaccine, or infection with the measles virus, could cause autism.

“People really got scared by that and didn’t want to vaccinate their kids with the MMR vaccine,” Kurtz said. “Then there is another issue with what we call the vaccine paradox.”

Kurtz said the vaccine paradox is the issue of individuals choosing not to get vaccinations because they have never seen the illnesses that the vaccines protect against.

“It’s called the vaccine paradox because the success of vaccines has actually made people not fear those diseases anymore, and so people don’t think they need to vaccinate against them,” Kurtz said.

Although there have been no confirmed cases of measles in Wisconsin, Kurtz said measles is a very virulent disease requiring a vaccination rate above 90% to be effective. In Wisconsin, she said studies show a vaccination rate of about 80% in most counties.

“The fact that you need a really high vaccination rate and we’re not getting it, it means that measles is spreading really quickly,” she said.

According to the CDC, the majority of people who contract measles are unvaccinated and measles can be brought into the U.S. via travelers who then spread the illness through communities where there are groups of unvaccinated individuals.

UWO Campus Emergency Manager Lt. Trent Martin said the University encourages vaccinations, but does not have any vaccination policies.

“The University does not have a vaccination mandate, which would include measles, so students or staff are not required to have measles vaccinations in order to be on campus,” he said. “We highly encourage everyone to get vaccinated for measles as that is the only way to prevent from obtaining measles.”

Students going into the College of Nursing, however, are required to receive vaccinations including MMR, chicken pox, Tdap, influenza and a TB test.

A University press release reported a number of factors that make the UWO campus vulnerable to a measles outbreak including “a high number of visitors to campus for events, anyone traveling internationally or to other areas of the country and then returning to campus and students living and eating in close contact on campus.”

Kurtz said the U.S. is getting to the point where young adults of college age are less likely to have been vaccinated than previous generations.

“You’re congregated in a place where there’s a lot of contact between people, large classrooms and dorms, which makes it more likely that it’s going to spread,” she said.

Kurtz said there are also individuals who cannot be vaccinated such as infants, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised, so getting vaccinated helps provide a “herd immunity” to those individuals.

“You’re not just protecting yourself or your kids or your family,” she said. “You’re also protecting these other people who are most at risk and can’t be vaccinated themselves.”

Kurtz said it’s better to be protected before being exposed.

“Once you’re sick, the vaccine’s not going to help you,” she said. “You should always go to a trusted source, your pediatrician or your doctor, and talk to them about the vaccinations because there is a lot of false information out there.”

Students who wish to check their vaccination status can do so by contacting their primary care provider or by checking the Wisconsin Immunization Registry at dhfswir.org.

Students who wish to receive vaccinations can contact their doctor or the UWO Student Health Center which offers immunizations including hepatitis A, hepatitis B, influenza, tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis, chicken pox and typhoid. An appointment is required.

Kurtz said vaccinations are one of the biggest medical success stories of our time.

“We’ve cured a lot of diseases and really brought down the number of a lot of diseases using vaccines,” she said. “They’re safe and they’re good to have.”