Thanks to the development of vaccines and comprehensive public health immunization programs, Thurston County residents rarely give thought to fatal infectious diseases.
But last week’s warning that a Whatcom County woman diagnosed with measles might have spread the disease throughout Western Washington, down as far as Pierce County, should remind us that deadly viruses never completely disappear.
Measles was declared eradicated from the United States in 2000. But there have been seven confirmed cases in Washington already this year. Nationwide, there were more reported cases and in a greater number of individual communities last year than for the past 17 years.
The resurgence of a disease that just a decade ago was killing nearly half a million people annually around the world, stresses the importance to remain vigilant about vaccinations. In particular, parents must continue to immunize their children.
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Last week’s measles scare came after the woman visited friends in British Columbia where the disease is running rampant. More than 350 cases have been confirmed there in the last month, most of them traced back to a private school with a high percentage of unvaccinated students.
That’s alarming because immunization is so easy and accessible, and proven effective.
Health experts estimate that immunizations have prevented more than 103 million U.S. cases of contagious diseases in the past 100 years. Vaccines eliminated smallpox, which killed more than 500 million people. Before the whooping cough vaccine was created in 1940, up to 10,000 people were dying every year from the disease in America.
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 and cancer patients on chemotherapy.
Unfortunately, Washington is one of 18 states that allow parents to forego immunizations for school children based on personal or religious reasons. And we have one of the nation’s highest rates of unvaccinated student populations.
The rate is particularly bad in Thurston County. The state Department of Health reports that parents have exempted 6.8 percent of K-12 students in Thurston County schools. Only 15 counties have worse (higher) rates.
Personal reasons were cited for 5.6 percent of those exemptions, 0.4 percent for religious reasons and the remainder was for medical conditions. Mason, Lewis and Grays Harbor counties all had lower (better) rates than Thurston.
When more children are immunized, it puts fewer people at risk. That reduces the cost 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 are one of humankind’s great achievements. But the bugs are persistent, and will return if future generations go unvaccinated. The state Legislature should adopt a tighter vaccination exemption law, for everyone’s benefit.