High rates of unvaccinated kids in Whatcom County are alarming local health officials, yet school districts have mostly refrained from pushing parents to vaccinate children to avoid infringing on parents’ rights.
Data provided from the state Department of Health and analyzed by The Bellingham Herald reveals that at least 18 schools in the county had more than 10 percent of students with a vaccine exemption during the 2013-14 school year. Several schools had exemption rates over 20 percent.
“People are not vaccinating their kids and they are putting their kids, and other kids, at risk,” said Whatcom County Health Officer Greg Stern.
Overall, the 7.5 percent vaccine exemption rate for schools in Whatcom County is higher than any other county in the state with more than 10,000 students enrolled. The majority — 6.38 percent — were granted for personal reasons. Medical and religious exemptions made up the rest.
Beach Elementary School had an exemption rate of 42.86 percent in 2013-14, the highest rate of any school in the county. However, school officials say that rate has dipped to 35 percent for the current year when counting full and partial exemptions. The school enrolls fewer than 40 students.
Public schools that support homeschooling programs had some of the highest rates of exemptions. Blaine Home Connections granted exemptions to more than 42 percent of its students in 2013-14. Mount Baker Academy and Lynden Academy both had rates over 20 percent.
Among private schools, Whatcom Hills Waldorf had the highest rate of exemption, at over 30 percent. Bellingham Christian School granted exemptions to over 24 percent of kids, and Pioneer Meadows Montessori Schools to over 22 percent of kids.
The Department of Health did not receive reports from eight Whatcom County schools in 2013-14 — mostly private schools. Reporting the data is required by the state.
The only public school that apparently did not report its numbers last year was Meridian High School. Yet Tom Churchill, Meridian School District superintendent, said the high school has, in fact, reported the numbers to the Department of Health every year. According to the district’s data, 4.3 percent of students had a vaccine exemption for the 2014-15 school year.
The data for all schools includes exemptions for the following vaccines: tetanus, pertussis, polio, MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), hepatitis B and varicella. Exemptions can be granted for medical, religious or personal reasons, although state law now requires proof that a parent seeking an exemption for personal reasons receives information from a health-care provider about the benefits and risks of vaccinations.
Stern said a child unable to be vaccinated for a medical reason is most at risk when other parents choose not to immunize their kids for personal reasons.
The high rates of exemptions in schools could lead to a future outbreak of disease, he said.
“Those are the pockets where the outbreaks can occur,” Stern said. “It’s kind of like having a bunch of tinder around, and there’s no spark yet. All it would take would be a spark for that to catch on fire.”
School districts respect parent rights
School officials are puzzled about why some schools have such high rates of exemption while others’ rates are so low.
Neither Bellingham nor Ferndale school districts use their own resources to urge parents to vaccinate their children, beyond fulfilling the state requirement of handing out information when parents register kids for school.
Jill Iwasaki, director of special services for Ferndale School District, said there is no particular reason Beach Elementary has a higher rate than other schools, and no particular reason Windward High School has a lower rate, at just below 4 percent.
“It’s a right that parents have,” Iwasaki said. “Our Washington state laws allow parents not to vaccinate our children.”
In Bellingham School District, Parkview, Columbia and Wade King elementary schools all had exemption rates over 10 percent last school year. Yet Alderwood, Northern Heights and Carl Cozier elementary schools all had rates under 5 percent.
Jacqueline Brawley, spokeswoman for the district, said it’s hard to pinpoint a reason for the disparity among schools. She said the district strives to find the right balance to keep kids and staff safe while also respecting families’ personal and religious decisions.
It’s left to the medical community and volunteer organizations, then, to educate parents about immunizing their kids.
One such organization in the county is called Immunity Community. The program is part of Vax Northwest and consists of parent advocates who educate other parents about the benefits of vaccines. Advocates have worked in several Bellingham schools the last couple of years.
Kathy Hennessy, a member of the program, has two kids in Bellingham School District: a sixth-grader at Kulshan Middle School and a second-grader at Roosevelt Elementary.
“I do think that we are at risk,” she said. “I worry about my own children and I worry about everybody else’s children, too.”
Immunity Community has put information about vaccines in school newsletters. Hennessy said the program works closely with county health officials and the school district to find the best way to reach out to the community.
“Instead of approaching this as a debate, you approach this as a respectful conversation and answer any questions that (other parents) have,” Hennessy said.
The schools with the lowest rates of exemption in the county are outside of Bellingham. Lummi High School and Lummi Tribal Elementary School have consistently had the lowest rates of exemptions in recent years. Last year, the schools reported an exemption for less than 1 percent of students.
Representatives from Lummi High School and Lummi Tribal Health Center did not respond to a reporter seeking comment.
Lynden is another community with low rates of exemption. Only 3.78 percent of 900 students at Lynden Christian Schools had an exemption. In contrast, Evergreen Christian School in Bellingham, which is part of Lynden Christian Schools, granted exemptions to nearly 20 percent of students.
Don Kok, superintendent of Lynden Christian Schools, said that simply is the result of the Lynden community understanding the importance of immunizations.
“This is for the benefit of the broader community, not just the school community, but the broader community,” he said. “For whatever reason there seems to be a different understanding.”
Movement toward mandating vaccines
Exemption rates have gone down slightly at most schools in Whatcom County since the 2011-12 school year, according to data provided by the state Department of Health. The law requiring parents to get a signature from a health-care provider for a personal exemption took effect in 2011.
Washington is still among 20 states that allow parents to exempt their kids from vaccinations based on personal beliefs.
Hennessy, from Immunity Community, testified in Olympia in support of the bill. To her, immunizations are not a parents’ rights issue. She says it’s too easy for parents to put others kids at risk.
“People really have some misinformed ideas about why vaccines are a bad idea,” Hennessy said. “(Parents) can’t control how serious these diseases can get.”
Stern said vaccines are a health and safety measure. He said the fear of vaccines is based on beliefs rather than a critical look at the science.
“Our jobs are to protect the public and to protect our patients, and we have people coming in with information from the Internet and they consider information that’s been invalidated with critical science,” Stern said. “Yet that creates enough doubt that they don’t want to risk having their kids vaccinated.”
He said he is sensitive to the civil liberties of parents but would like everyone to be protected against preventable diseases.
“We mandate the use of seat belts and require airbags and other safety features in cars,” Stern said. “In the case of vaccines, the choice not to vaccinate impacts not just the individual, but others who are too young or have medical conditions that prevent them from receiving vaccines.”