BELLINGHAM - Bellingham mom Kathy Hennessy has joined the Immunity Community - a pilot project to encourage parents to vaccinate their children in a county where the vaccine exemption rate for kindergarteners is among the highest in the state.
At 7.5 percent, the Whatcom County rate is well above the statewide average of 4.6 percent. Those figures are for the last school year, the most recent data available.
The rate represents children who entered kindergarten without one or more required vaccines. Exemptions are made for medical conditions, personal beliefs, religious beliefs or membership in certain religious groups.
In Whatcom County, about 5.5 percent of the exemptions were for personal beliefs; 1.8 percent for medical conditions; and 0.19 percent for religious beliefs.
Washington state has one of the highest kindergarten exemption rates in the nation, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That's a concern given recent outbreaks of whooping cough and measles in Washington state and elsewhere - infectious diseases that could've been prevented through vaccination.
"We're really leaving our communities at risk of disease," said Michele Roberts, immunization director with the Washington state Department of Health, which is part of the pilot.
Added Hennessy: "It's a plane ride away."
Launched in mid-October, the Bellingham pilot project trained parents such as Hennessy to talk to other parents who have "vaccine hesitancy" as it's called - and to do so in a positive way in their children's school or in the larger community.
It's about "being an advocate not an adversary," said Hennessy, who has seen online debates about vaccination get nasty.
The effort recognizes that parents should be the ones to make decisions about immunizing their children and that parents on both sides of the vaccination debate want what's best for their children.
"This is not about pitting parents against each other," said Mackenize Melton, immunization project coordinator for WithinReach.
WithinReach is a statewide nonprofit that has worked for 25 years to link families to services they need to be healthy. Immunization is part of that, specifically through its public-private partnership called Vax Northwest. Other partners include Seattle Children's, Washington state Department of Health, GroupHealth and BestStart Washington.
The Immunity Community is a program of Vax Northwest.
The Bellingham project is working with nine parent advocates, including Hennessy, and six childcare centers or preschools for this school year.
The goal is to provide parents the accurate information they need to make the decision to immunize their children within the recommended schedule - and to help parents who do support vaccination speak up about why they do so, advocates said.
There's also a research component to the project that could be replicated elsewhere if it shows that parental knowledge and attitudes can be changed by other parents in a county that has a higher vaccine exemption rate.
"I like this approach of developing parent advocates," said Greg Stern, Whatcom County health officer.
Stern has noticed parents' fear of vaccinations based on health concerns for their children - some real and some exaggerated, he said - as well as distrust of government and industry seen as having a vested interest.
"We'd like to be able to engage in those conversations," Stern said. "We share their concerns about their children's health."
And despite worries about the exemption rates in Washington state and Whatcom County, those behind the project said it's important to recognize that most parents do vaccinate their children on time and on schedule.
For example, about 83.6 percent of kindergarten students entering Whatcom County schools last year met all of the vaccination requirements, according to state Department of Health data, and project participants in Whatcom County aim to remind others of that community norm.
"It's kind of giving voice to the silent majority," Roberts said.
Go to vaxnorthwest.org to learn about Vax Northwest and the Immunity Community effort.
Reach KIE RELYEA at email@example.com or call 715-2234.