A spike in confirmed measles cases across the country means thousands of unvaccinated Wisconsin children could have their health on the line.
There have been 1,234 confirmed cases of measles in 31 states as of Aug. 29, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
For perspective, there have been 1,958 confirmed cases in the last nine years. Wisconsin has not had any confirmed cases but three surrounding states have, and school-aged children in Wisconsin could be at risk.
Nearly 92% of students have met immunization requirements, according to the Department of Health. However, more than 78,000 students in the state have not.
With the recent measles outbreak, a dangerous percentage of students are not properly vaccinated. Only one county (Menominee) is at a percentage health officials deem safe (93).
"It is called herd immunity," said Dr. Robert Kitsis, family medicine physician with Ascension Medical Group. "If you have enough people immunized against something, it will protect those who are not able to be immunized, whether they're too young or have other medical conditions."
There are instances in which families get behind on immunizations, but there are others who choose a waiver to opt out of having children vaccinated.
The Department of Health lists the reasons for opting out as medical, religious or personal.
Medical waivers are for people who are allergic to an ingredient in the vaccine or other medical reasons. Religious exemptions are for people who choose not to vaccinate for their religious beliefs. Personal exemptions are for those who choose not to for their own reasons; a theory started in 1997 by a British surgeon that vaccines caused autism is among one of the reasons people choose.
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services said religious and medical waivers have remained relatively constant over the years, but personal conviction waivers are on the rise.
During the 1997-98 school year, 1.2% of students had a personal conviction waiver. In the most recent statistics, 4.6% of students have had personal conviction waivers filed.
That turns out to be more than 44,000 students in the state. If measles makes its way to Wisconsin, it could put more than just these kids at risk.
"It is called herd immunity. If you have enough people immunized against something, it will protect those who are not able to be immunized, whether they're too young or have other medical conditions." — Dr. Robert Kitsis, family medicine physician with Ascension Medical Group
"I'm afraid that if more and more people are not vaccinated, it's only a matter of time that we will see measles, especially with international travel increasing," Kitsis said.
While Wisconsin has not seen a confirmed case of measles, Michigan, Illinois and Iowa have. School-aged children in Wisconsin border counties have some of the lowest immunization rates in the state.
Eleven of the 22 counties that border another state have immunization rates below 80%.
"It's a concern nationwide," said Dr. Nicole Fortuna of the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center. "It's definitely something we've talked about at the clinic. Measles is a highly contagious disease, and it's easy to spread, too."
At Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, many of their patients come from underserved areas of the city. Their socioeconomic situations can make it harder to get vaccinations.
So, if measles were to spread into Wisconsin, they could be hit hardest.
"I think it's something that needs to be taken into consideration to make sure we're getting our population here at the clinic prepared for those situations," Fortuna said. "(Vaccinating) is not really a recommendation. It's what's best. That's what we tell families. These are the only way to prevent a lot of diseases. Many of the things we vaccinate for, there aren't necessarily medications to treat after the fact. The best approach is to prevent the disease in the first place."