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Washington communities at risk of measles outbreak

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Washington state is among the most vulnerable for the outbreak of infectious diseases due to the high number of parents who choose not to let their children be immunized, according to health officials. (AP Photo/file)

Washington state is among the most vulnerable for the outbreak of infectious disease due to the high number of parents who choose not to let their children be immunized, according to health officials.

According to figures from the Washington State Department of Health, roughly six percent of kindergarteners statewide last year did not receive at least one of their required immunizations because their parents opted out.

“That’s very high,” said Michele Roberts, health communication manager for the state’s Office of Immunization. “The year before that, we were at 6.2 percent, which that year was the highest in the nation. Most states have rates less than three percent.”

In Washington state, children can receive immunization exemptions for one of three reasons: religious, philosophical, or medical.

The percentage of exemptions vary greatly by county. For the 2010-2011 school year, just 1.9 percent of students K-12 in Franklin County were exempt from immunizations. During the same school year in Ferry County, 25.4 percent of students K-12 opted out.

Roberts said it is those communities with high rates of exemptions that are most at risk for the outbreak of infectious diseases such as the measles.

“Often these kids live in the same areas and go to the same schools, so we have pockets in our state that are really at risk,” Roberts said. “I think that’s why we see outbreaks happen in communities […] parents are seeking advice from their peers about immunizations.”

Other at-risk communities, said Roberts, include areas in Olympia, Snohomish, Whatcom County, San Juan County and Vashon Island, among others.

While there are similar pockets with dangerously low immunization rates nationwide, a recent Wall Street Journal article points out that overall vaccination rates are on the rise.

“Overall, more parents in the U.S. are getting their children vaccinated than in recent years, when concerns about immunization prompted some to opt out,” according to the March 20 article. “Rates of vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella, considered a bellwether for U.S. rates, ticked up to 91.5 percent in 2010 from 90 percent in 2009, according to the CDC.”

But the article warns of a “growing” concern over concentrated areas with immunization rates “far below the threshold that is needed to prevent an outbreak for certain diseases.”

Health officials here in Washington are hopeful, however, that a new law governing immunizations will decrease the number of parents who decide to opt their children out.

The bill, signed into law in May 2011, requires parents receive a Certificate of Exemption from a licensed health care provider before their child is allowed to opt out of immunization requirements. The certificate verifies that parents received information about the risks and benefits of immunizations prior to making a decision. The bill has applied to all parents seeking exemptions after the law went onto effect on July 22, 2011.

“The old law made it very easy to opt out, all it took was a parent’s signature,” Roberts said. “We definitely expect the new law will cause a drop in the number of exemptions, but it may take a couple of years to see that.”

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