It's shocking how many parents have chosen to put their kids at risk, and the children of others, by eschewing vaccinations.
As the Star's Stephanie Innes and Rob O'Dell reported on Sunday, one in three Arizona schools had kindergarten classes with vaccination rates so low children were at risk for infectious disease outbreaks for measles, mumps and whooping cough.
Some of the worst offenders, which were often charter or private schools, had vaccination rates as low as 50 percent when they need to be 80 to 95 percent, depending on the disease, to prevent an outbreak.
"It's a very real risk, choosing not to vaccinate," said Natalie Norton, whose newborn son died of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, in 2010. "It's like playing Russian roulette with your own children and everybody else's."
Norton's son was too young to receive an immunization for whooping cough, and then became sick with the disease during a family trip to Utah. He most likely became infected from people without vaccinations, a tragic reminder of the need for herd immunity. When a high percentage of people are immunized from diseases, it helps protect people who have not received their vaccinations.
"You are vaccinating your kids so that you protect your community. It's a community responsibility - it's a social contract," said Will Humble, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.
In recent years, roughly 30 percent of schools in Pima County had at least one vaccination below the threshold needed to curb an outbreak of infectious diseases, O'Dell and Innes found. The rates were even worse in Maricopa County.
Equally shocking is the abject failure of the state and myriad schools to not enforce state law that says students cannot attend school without full immunizations or a waiver, O'Dell and Innes reported. Students without either are supposed to be suspended - but that never happens and there are no repercussions.
"There is absolutely no consequence to a school if they report or don't report at all," said Dr. Michelle McDonald, chief medical officer for the Pima County Health Department.
Neither Health Services nor the state's Department of Education have taken any real enforcement against schools with vaccination rates below 80 percent. Health Services sends letters to these schools. It's an understatement to say this is not good enough.
The two departments must determine which will take a lead on enforcement, and to develop a plan to bring vaccination rates in schools to acceptable levels. If the statute needs to be modified to give it enforcement teeth, then Southern Arizona lawmakers should take the lead on such a reform.
At the local level, all schools need to follow the practices of Desert Willow Elementary School in the Vail School District. Desert Willow has the best vaccination rates in Pima County.
Children there cannot register at the school without meeting state requirements. The school allows a grace period, but as time goes on, the staff gets more aggressive: requiring proof of a doctor's appointment, and eventually kids would be told they couldn't attend school.
To not vaccinate your children is simply choosing to be reckless with their lives and those of others, and yet parents continue to make that call.
"You can die from anything, but I'd rather naturally boost the immune system," said Tevna Tayler, a natural physician. "In what natural world, do you get injected with a strange concoction?"
This is simply nonsensical. Tayler's children potentially benefit from herd immunity.
We are fortunate to live in an age when many infectious diseases are preventable. To not see that, and actually view immunizations as a choice, is myopic at best and tragic at worst.
The pain that Natalie Norton feels about the loss of her son - because others did not get vaccinated - is a reminder of this. Parents: Make sure your kids are vaccinated.
Arizona Daily Star