The MMR vaccine immunization rate of Arizona kindergartners is 93%, says the state’s health director, Cara Christ.

PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey won’t support eliminating the ability of parents to claim a personal exemption for their children from vaccines despite a new published study showing the state’s largest county at risk for a measles epidemic.

“Ultimately, decisions are going to be left to parents,” he told a group of business journalists meeting Friday in Phoenix. “But there are things we can do in terms of public policy” to incentivize that.

And the governor insisted that Arizona has been “pretty good” at using education to encourage vaccinations.

But the numbers from his own health department tell a different story.

State Health Director Cara Christ has reported the percentage of kindergartners who claim a “personal belief exemption” from one or more vaccines has increased from 1.4% in 2000 to 5.4% last year. And there was a big jump in the past 12 months, with the exemption level now at nearly 6%.

And for sixth-graders, the parents of 6% percent of children have a personal exemption compared to 1% at the turn of the decade and 5.4% a year ago.

Just this past week, the Lancet Infectious Disease journal said Maricopa County is one of 25 in the entire country where there is the greatest chance of an outbreak. Factors analyzed by the journal range from the prevalence of international travel to the rate of nonmedical exemptions to laws requiring that children be vaccinated.

And also this past week, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation that would no longer allow parents to claim a personal or philosophical objection to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and still send their children to school.

But Ducey said Friday that while he supports immunizations — he said his own three sons have been vaccinated — he wants to focus instead on educating parents about the benefits. And he specifically ruled out overriding their preferences.

Ducey could not unilaterally eliminate personal exemptions. That would require legislative approval.

The one bill to scrap that exemption, HB 2162 crafted by Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, died when House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, refused to even assign the measure to a committee for a hearing.

But the governor has the ability to ask lawmakers to enact policies he wants.

So far, Ducey’s actions in this area have been more defensive.

While Hernandez’s bill failed to get a hearing, Rep. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, pushed three bills through her House Committee on Health and Human Services that some public health advocates said would deter parents from getting their children immunized.

Those bills would:

  • Expand vaccination exemptions and eliminate a requirement that parents sign a state form in order for their children to receive an exemption;
  • Require doctors to offer parents a blood test to determine if their child already is immune;
  • Mandate that parents be given extensive information about the risks of vaccines, including materials generally reserved for doctors.

Ducey helped derail those bills earlier this year, before they got to the full House, by publicly declaring his opposition and vowing not to sign any legislation that he believes would result in fewer children getting immunized.

Actually asking lawmakers to eliminate the personal exemption, however, is something the governor won’t do.

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“I think a lot of this is about public awareness and public education,” the governor said, noting “there are things that have been put out on the Internet” that he believes are misleading.

“Parents are concerned, especially with newborns and infants,” he said.

But Ducey said it’s not his role as governor to impose mandates — or to tell people who read anti-vaccination materials online that they must get their children inoculated. Instead, he said, it’s public education.

“What I want to do is get above the noise and this conflict and make sure that people have the facts that these vaccinations are safe and effective,” the governor said. “And I’d like to see their kids be vaccinated.”

Yet with all of that, Christ said the current rate of immunization of kindergartners statewide is 93%. That, she said is below the 95% level to create “herd immunity,” which health professionals say is necessary to stop an epidemic should there be an outbreak of measles in the community.

In some areas, it’s far below that threshold.

Yavapai County, for example, has an MMR immunization rate of just 83.3%. There, according to state figures, one kindergartner out of every eight has claimed a personal exemption.

Mohave and Navajo counties are slightly better with an 88.4% immunization rate, with a personal exemption rate for kindergartners of 10.3% and 7.8%, respectively.

Part of what public health officials say makes the issue of herd immunity so crucial is that there are children who cannot be vaccinated.

Some of these have medical conditions. But some of that group includes newborns who are too young to get the MMR vaccine: The Centers for Disease Control recommends the first dose at 12 through 15 months of age, with a second dose between the ages of 4 and 6 years old.