Kindergarten immunization rate falls slightly in county

Health official stresses the importance of vaccinating children

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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About 79 percent of Clark County kindergartners received all of the immunizations required for school entry for the 2013-14 school year — a rate 4 percentage points lower than the state average.

Statewide, 83.3 percent of kindergartners were fully immunized this past school year. That's down 2.2 percent from the previous school year — the first drop after two years of steady increase, according to state health officials.

In Clark County, the kindergartner immunization rate of 79.2 percent was down slightly from the previous school year's rate of 79.6 percent.

The percentage of local kids who obtained immunization exemptions increased slightly — from 6.4 percent in 2012-13 to 7.2 percent in 2013-14. The rate of kids out of compliance — those who are not fully vaccinated and don't have an exemption — dropped from 12.1 percent to 11.6 percent.

"The changes are really small," said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County Public Health administrator and health officer. "I don't think these numbers tell us something fundamentally has changed."

In Washington, parents can obtain immunization exemptions for medical, philosophical and religious reasons. A law enacted in July 2011 requires parents to speak with their child's health care provider about the benefits and risks of immunizations, and provide the school with a form signed by the provider in order to receive an exemption.

Children who are out of compliance are at risk of being excluded from school, Melnick said.

The bottom line, Melnick said, is the county needs to get as many kids immunized as possible.

"Our goal is to get 100 percent of kids immunized," he said.

Relying on herd immunity — the idea that unvaccinated people will be protected because the number of vaccinated people in the community makes the chance of an outbreak lower — is dangerous, Melnick said. The more people who rely on herd immunity, the lower the immunization rate will drop, thus increasing the risk for an outbreak, he said.

"Having a 79.2 percent completion rate in Clark County makes me nervous," Melnick said.

Vaccines not only protect the immunized child but the children in the community who cannot be immunized for medical reasons or because they're too young to be fully protected, Melnick said.

Recent outbreaks of contagious diseases highlight the need for people to be immunized, Melnick said.

In 2012, Washington experienced a record-setting whooping cough epidemic. Nearly 5,000 people in the state contracted the respiratory illness — the highest number of cases in more than 70 years, according to the state health department. A vaccine is available to prevent it.

This year, the U.S. is experiencing the highest number of measles cases in two decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded more than 530 cases of measles this year in 20 different states, including Washington, where 15 people have contracted the illness.

Even disease outbreaks overseas are cause for concern, Melnick said.

"The earth has gotten smaller with people traveling," Melnick said. "It's only a plane ride away. It's really foolhardy to not vaccinate your kids."