Back to school, and back to vaccine controversies

Vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella can help prevent the spread of disease to people who are unable to be immunized for medical reasons.
Vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella can help prevent the spread of disease to people who are unable to be immunized for medical reasons. The Associated Press

With the start of school — this week in some districts, next week in others — comes the inevitable controversy over students who lack life-saving immunizations.

Washington makes it too easy for parents to opt out of having their kids vaccinated. Those parents are relying on other families to get immunizations in order to avoid epidemics of diseases that used to kill, cripple and sicken thousands of children every year.

In medical circles, they’re known as “free riders.” A few don’t make a big difference; it’s when their numbers surge — as they have in some pockets of the state, including Vashon Island — that others are put at risk.

A very small number of people cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or because they’re too young, and their health depends on the community’s “herd immunity” to protect them by preventing epidemics. The recent measles and whooping cough outbreaks in this state were linked to high numbers of unvaccinated children. An immune-compromised woman living in Clallam County, which has a low childhood vaccination rate, this spring became the first confirmed measles death in the U.S. in 12 years.

Blame for the vast majority of unvaccinated children — and the threat they pose to vulnerable populations — goes to “anti-vaxxer” parents who resist getting their children immunized for reasons such as fear of a disproved link to autism. But state lawmakers are also culpable; they allow parents to opt out for religious and vague “philosophical” reasons.

Legislators had a chance this past session to follow the lead of their counterparts in West Virginia, Mississippi and most recently California who have done away with all exemptions except for medical. Or they could have required that parents who opt out of vaccinations pull their children out of public school. Parents may have a right to endanger their own children’s health, but they shouldn’t be able to put others’ kids at risk. But lawmakers failed on both counts.

Now a new study from the University of Georgia confirms what most health officials already suspected: that tougher rules regarding immunization of children lead to lower levels of diseases such as measles and whooping cough.

The researchers found that getting rid of philosophical exemptions increases rates by 0.1 percent. But requiring a state health department official to sign off on a nonmedical reason is even more effective, bumping rates up 1.12 percent. For parents who claim philosophical objections, forcing them to get that signature is a good test of whether their objection is real or just a case of laziness.

In Washington, all that’s required is for a health care provider to verify that the parents have been informed of the benefits and risks of immunization. It’s even easier to get a religious exemption, with no verification of the parents’ claim that their objection is faith-based.

The recent outbreaks of measles and whooping cough did convince many holdout parents to get their children vaccinated. With kids back in school and once again in close quarters for several hours every day, lapses in herd immunity will make themselves known soon enough.

School districts need to encourage parents to protect their children and work with them to get their required paperwork submitted. Parents who fail to comply should be required to keep their children home until their records are up to date.