State worst for vaccine exemptions

Health officials hope new law will rein in rate

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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A new report shows Washington state has the highest vaccine exemption rate in the country, with 6.2 percent of kindergartners entering school without required vaccines.

The number of exemptions has more than doubled in the last 10 years. But health officials hope a new law that goes into effect July 22 will bring the rates back down.

In Washington, parents can obtain immunization exemptions for medical, philosophical and religious reasons.

The new law still allows those exemptions but requires parents speak with their child’s health care provider about the benefits and risks of immunizations. Parents must then submit a form, signed by the provider, indicating they received the information.

“(The law) toughened up the exemptions,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer. “I’m hoping that will help the exemption rates go down.”

Health officials hope the new law will cut down on the number of parents who opt for a philosophical exemption out of convenience rather than personal conviction.

In the 2009-10 school year a majority of Washington exemptions — 4,515 of 5,015 kindergartners — were for philosophical reasons, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“A lot of people chose the philosophical exemption for time constraints for taking their child in (to the doctor),” Melnick said.

During the same school year, 8.8 percent of Clark County kindergartners had vaccine exemptions, according to the Washington State Department of Health. In addition, 7.9 percent of kindergartners were considered noncompliant, meaning the child either hadn’t submitted an immunization record or hadn’t received the required vaccines and did not have an exemption.

That year, Clark County had more than 5,000 kindergartners.

Fifteen of the state’s 39 counties had higher exemption rates than Clark County. Cowlitz County’s exemption rate was 3.3 percent; Lewis, King and Pierce counties all had exemption rates of about 5 percent.

Children and adults who are not vaccinated, for whatever reason, are susceptible to contracting diseases and may expose those who cannot receive vaccines to illnesses, Melnick said.

Susceptibility contributed to two cases of measles in Clark County this year.

An infant too young to receive the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine traveled to India and contracted the disease. An unvaccinated teenager was exposed to the infant at a Vancouver medical clinic and also contracted measles.

The two Clark County cases were among 118 cases of measles reported in the U.S. from January 1 to May 20. That’s the highest number of reported cases of measles in that 19-week period since 1996, according to the CDC.

Of the 118 cases this year, 105 people who contracted the disease were not vaccinated. Nobody has died from measles this year but 47 people were hospitalized.

In addition to susceptibility, an increase in foreign travel was a factor in the number of cases. As long as measles remains endemic in the rest of the world, importations into the U.S. will continue, according to the CDC report.

“One of the reasons we do immunizations, these diseases are just a plane ride away,” Melnick said. “We really need to protect our population.”