In the waning days of summer, Clark County health officials are urging parents to not only equip their children with notebooks and pencils as they return to school but also with up-to-date vaccinations.
Children in Washington are required to get several vaccines before attending school or child care centers. While state law allows for vaccine exemptions, health officials urge parents to get their children immunized before they enter schools, where their children will be in close contact with others.
"It's important because these are vaccine-preventable diseases," said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer. "Vaccines prevent diseases that kill children."
Immunizations required for school include polio; diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; measles, mumps and rubella; hepatitis B and varicella (chickenpox). A complete schedule of required immunizations is available on the Washington State Department of Health website.
This year's whooping cough epidemic in Washington is evidence of the importance of immunizations, according to state health officials. More than 3,500 cases of whooping cough have been reported so far this year — the highest number of cases in Washington since the early 1940s.
"Unvaccinated kids are more likely to catch and spread serious illnesses like whooping cough," said Dr. Maxine Hayes, state health officer and a pediatrician, said in a news release. "That's why it's so important to protect children from this and other preventable diseases."
In Washington, parents can obtain immunization exemptions for medical, philosophical and religious reasons. A 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed Washington had the highest vaccine exemption
rate in the country. A new law enacted in July 2011 was aimed at reducing the number of people seeking exemptions.
The new law still allows those exemptions but requires that 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 stricter requirements may be achieving that goal, although slowly.
During the 2011-12 school year, 5.6 percent of Washington students had vaccine exemptions. That's down from 5.8 percent the previous school year, before the law went into effect, according to the state health department.
In Clark County, exemptions rates dropped from 6.1 percent in 2010-11 to 5.9 percent last school year, according to the state.
Local exemption rates varied from school district to school district. Most districts had an exemption rate of 5 to 7 percent during the 2011-12 school year. Battle Ground Public Schools had the lowest exemption rate (3.2 percent), and Camas School District had the highest (10.4 percent).
The variation reflects the underlying population in those areas, Melnick said. In Camas, for example, there may be a group of parents, or multiple groups of parents, who have philosophical objections to vaccines and choose not to immunize their kids, he said.
Comparing disease rates before vaccines with rates now shows immunizations prevent illnesses, Melnick said. Before vaccines, the U.S. had half a million cases of measles and 16,000 cases of paralytic polio every year. Pertussis (or whooping cough) infected a couple hundred thousand every year before vaccines, he said.
Today, thanks to vaccines, those diseases are rare, Melnick said.
"It's important to protect the health of our children," he said.