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UW-Madison weighs whether to require measles vaccination

UW-Madison pharmacy student Meghan Cohen, center, administers a vaccine against a rare form of meningitis to a student at UW-Madison in 2016. The university is considering whether to require vaccines against measles for students.

UW-Madison is one of a handful of universities in the Big 10 that do not require students to get the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

But with measles outbreaks in several other states, university health officials are discussing whether their vaccination recommendation to students should be a requirement.

Eleven other Big 10 institutions — Purdue, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern and Rutgers — make clear on their websites that the measles vaccine is required, though some universities note exemptions allowing students with religious beliefs or medical reasons to opt out of immunizations.

Like UW-Madison, Michigan State and the University of Michigan‘s websites say the vaccine is recommended.

Measles cases have climbed to the country’s highest level since 1994, though no cases have been reported in Wisconsin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Medical experts attribute the resurgence largely to misinformation about vaccines. A purported link to autism that has since been debunked sparked an anti-vaccination movement in the early 2000s and children born during that time period are beginning to enter college.

Bill Kinsey, director of medical services for UW-Madison’s University Health Services (UHS), said he has not seen a significant effect of the anti-vaccination movement in this year’s new students, but it’s something he and other health officials will monitor in coming years.

“We are always on alert and monitoring, not only for measles, but any communicable disease outbreak on campus,” Kinsey said. “We track those numbers day by day and week by week.”

State law requires K-12 students to show that they have received the required immunizations, though it’s also one of 17 states that grants an exemption for those who object to being immunized because of personal or moral beliefs.

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The percentage of Wisconsin children receiving at least one dose of the measles vaccine by 24 months has held steady at about 85 percent for the last six years, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Between 85 and 95 percent of a population needs to be immunized in order to protect vulnerable populations and to keep diseases from spreading, experts say.

“For Wisconsin students, most have cleared the bar,” Kinsey said.

UHS encourages, but does not require, students to upload their immunization records on file for UHS staff to access in case of an outbreak. More than 90 percent of students do so, and the submitted records show about 90 percent of students are vaccinated, according to the most recent UHS data, which are a few years old.

UW-Madison’s vaccination recommendation has been in place since Kinsey joined UHS in 2016, though it’s a topic he said benefits from “constant reassessment.”

In discussions with other university medical directors, Kinsey learned some institutions that require vaccines impose restrictions — for example, placing a hold on course registration — until students provide immunization records. But other institutions with vaccination requirements place no penalties on students who do not comply.

Madison Area Technical College also strongly recommends, but does not require, students to receive vaccinations, except for those in health-related programs where they may come into contact with patients. MATC does not collect student vaccination records, except for those in programs where vaccines are required, according to MATC health educator Anna Marie Hoffmann.

Both MATC and UW-Madison offer vaccines at their clinics for a fee.

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