Washington lagging behind in immunizations

Immunization graphic

LONG BEACH — With school back in session and students passing germs around, adults are glad local immunization rates for young children are improving. But Pacific County’s rates are still well below state and national goals.

Results from the Center for Disease Control’s most recent National Immunization Survey show that only 65 percent of Washington children under the age of three received the recommended vaccinations in 2012, according to a Sept. 12 press release from the State Department of Health.

That’s below the national average of 68 percent, and far below the state and national goal of an 80 percent immunization rate.

Immunization rates for individual vaccines, including measles, chickenpox, polio and Hepatitis B fell also below state and national goals.

For example, only 85 percent of the state’s toddlers have received the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, while the national rate for this vaccine is 91 percent.

The low rates of measles vaccinations are especially concerning to state health officials, who estimate that at least 90 percent of the population must be immunized to prevent the spread of the highly contagious, and sometimes life-threatening disease, according to the press release.

For the last several years, vaccination rates have stayed well below the state’s goals.

State residents opt out

When the study was last conducted about four years ago, 6.2 percent of all Washington kindergarteners had been exempted from vaccinations on the basis of personal, religious, or medical issues — the highest rate in the nation.

“That’s obviously a really dubious distinction,” said Michelle Roberts, a spokesperson for the State Department of Health’s immunization program in a Friday phone interview.

“The biggest reason (to vaccinate young children) is really that immunizations save lives. They prevent diseases that can be incredibly serious, and sometimes potentially deadly. This is one of the best decisions parents can make to keep their children healthy,” Roberts said.

It is difficult to pinpoint vaccination rates for local children who have not entered school yet.

The CDC study did not include data for individual counties, and the State Department of Health does not start tracking immunization rates for children until they begin kindergarten.

A significant number of parents put off immunizing their children until they enter the school system, so the number of 5-year-olds who are immunized is likely substantially higher than the number of local 3-year-olds who are immunized.

Local improvement

But local rates for kindergarteners appear to be climbing.

According to DOH statistics, just under 91 percent of all Pacific County kindergarteners were fully immunized in 2012 — up from 85 percent in 2011.

These rates place Pacific County above the state average of about 86 percent.

(For comparison, the Olympic Peninsula’s Jefferson County had the worst compliance rate, with 47 percent of kindergartners immunized, and Columbia County in southeast Washington had the best, with 100 percent of all kindergarteners immunized).

Across local school districts, levels of vaccination varied widely.

In Ocean Beach School District, which had the highest number of “out-of-compliance” kindergarteners (those who did not get shots, and were not exempted) in the county last year, about one in every 10 kindergarteners started school without immunizations.

Dilemma for schools

When kids show up without their shots, school officials must make tough calls about how to address the problem, Ocean Beach School District Superintendent Mark Hottowe said Monday afternoon.

While districts can legally tell kids to stay home until they’ve had their vaccines, missed days of school negatively affect students — especially the low-income students who are more likely to show up without their vaccines.

“If we exclude them, it’s going to make catch-up that much more difficult,” Hottowe said.

Instead, OBSD generally allows children to attend once they’ve made an appointment to get their immunizations.

But it’s an imperfect system, because sometimes appointments fall through, and parents fail to follow up.

Once those children have started the year, “We’re not going to dismiss them from school, so it is a bit of a conundrum,” Hottowe said. He acknowledged that high turnover for the district’s lone part-time school nurse position may have also played a role.

Mary Goelz, director of Pacific County’s Health and Human Service program, said in an email Friday that vaccines have consistently been proven to be safe and effective. Goelz said that immunizing children protects the whole community from potential outbreaks, as well as the inconveniences and steep costs of treating disease.

“If there is an outbreak, this may not only impact the family and the child, but any contacts they may have, the community and the providers that may care for that patient,” Goelz said.

For help finding an immunization provider in your area, call 1-800-322-2588.

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