Public health officials have long puzzled over why the Pacific Northwest has so many parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Last year, the parents of 4.6 percent of children entering kindergarten sought vaccination exemptions, the seventh highest in the nation.
It’s unfortunate that some Thurston County school districts have recorded exemption rates much higher than the state average.
We may never understand the irrational fears about vaccines, but we can identify parents who are more likely susceptible to anti-immunization misinformation and arm them with the facts. For that purpose, the new tool developed by a Seattle pediatrician is encouraging.
Doug Opel, who practices at Seattle Children’s Hospital and its research institute, has published a survey that doctors can use to predict which parents might not immunize their children. That gives doctors a good chance to educate the parents and dispel common myths about vaccines before the kids reach school age.
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Washington had the most lenient exemption policy of any state until the Legislature passed a more restrictive law in 2011. It requires parents seeking an exemption from the mandatory immunizations to talk with their family doctor about the risks and benefits of vaccines. Otherwise, public schools cannot enroll a child who has not been fully immunized, except for religious reasons.
Parents who don’t immunize their children are gambling on more than their own child’s risk of contracting highly communicable diseases. They are putting others at risk, too, including children medically ineligible for immunization.
When more children are immunized, it puts fewer people at risk. That reduces the costs of public health and the health care system in general. The concept of “community immunity” is how the world has eradicated major killer diseases.
Vaccines eliminated smallpox, which killed more than 500 million people, and has nearly vanquished polio, which paralyzed 16,000 Americans as recently as the 1950s. Before the whooping cough vaccine was created in 1940, up to 10,000 people were dying every year from the disease in America.
Given accurate information, most people choose immunization. During last year’s whooping cough epidemic, state and county public health departments launched a massive pro-vaccination campaign. The result: The number of cases reported this year has dropped by about 85 percent.
Fighting medical falsehoods is the bane of every public health official’s existence. An English doctor concocted one of the most egregious deceits in the 1990s that linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. Scientific studies have since debunked the link, and Britain’s medical association disbarred the doctor from practicing medicine.
Vaccines are one of humankind’s great achievements, eradicating once unstoppable communicable diseases. But the bugs are persistent and will return if future generations go unvaccinated. The state’s tighter vaccination exemption law and Opel’s early warning system give us new weapons for this ongoing battle.