In Our View: Be Sure: Vaccinate

Washington state’s rate of exemptions is among the highest in the nation

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One announcement this month from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cast Washington in an unfavorable light. It’s up to the state’s parents to correct the problem. Ours is one of four states that have vaccine exemption rates above 5 percent for kindergartners entering school. The other three are Alaska, Oregon and Vermont. Washington’s rate is 6.2 percent. The rate in Clark County — home to more than 5,000 kindergartners — is 8.8 percent.

Why aren’t more children vaccinated? And haven’t most of these diseases been virtually eliminated? Technically, and legally, there are three answers to the first question. Parents can obtain immunization exemptions for medical, philosophical or religious reasons.

The answer to the second question was provided by Clark County Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick in a recent online comment beneath a Columbian story about the CDC’s new figures. According to Melnick, “Now that these diseases are relatively uncommon, some parents may question the need to vaccinate their kids. But (the diseases) are uncommon precisely because of vaccination efforts.” In other words, the parents’ responsibility to become part of the solution is more than just to the child; it’s also to society.

Melnick wrote an additional answer to that second question: “Today we are seeing a disturbing re-emergence of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough in communities with high rates of unvaccinated people.”

The Legislature saw this, too, and this year passed a law that takes effect July 22. The law still allows the same three reasons for immunization exemptions, but starting next month, those parents will be required to speak to health care providers about the benefits and risks of immunizations, and a form signed by the provider must be submitted, indicating the parents received the information. The Columbian editorially endorsed that bill for one simple reason expressed on March 27. We are convinced that “solid science has repeatedly shown that the individual risks of vaccines are far outweighed by the individual and public protections the vaccines provide.”

The 118 cases of measles reported in the U.S. from Jan. 1 to May 20 were the highest number in a 19-week period since 1996. Two of those cases were in Clark County: An infant too young to receive the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine contracted the disease while traveling in India. Upon returning home, the infant visited a Vancouver medical clinic, where an unvaccinated teenager also contracted measles.

Melnick, in his online comment, put compelling statistics into historical context: “In 1952, 58,000 people in the U.S. got polio and 3,145 people died from the paralyzing disease. That same year, measles struck 683,000 Americans, killing 618 of them. Two years earlier, 121,000 people caught whooping cough and 1,118 of them died. Vaccines are responsible for a dramatic decline in deaths and illnesses from these diseases.”

Unfortunately, not-so-solid science continues to misguide parents who depend on information from unreliable sources. Fortunately for parents, this issue is unlike many controversies that arise in education, public safety and other crucial areas of child-rearing. In this issue, there is one clearly defined, reliable source of information. Listen to — and trust — your family physician.