OLYMPIA, Wash. – Record numbers of parents in the Northwest are seeking waivers from mandatory child immunization requirements. The trend alarms public health officials. They say it creates increased risk for disease outbreaks. Oregon, Washington and Idaho are all moving to sway vaccine skeptics, but passions run high on the issue.
Kindergarten religious exemptions in Oregon - Graphic by Oregon DHS
WA State K-12 Immunization Exemption Rates - Graphic from Wash. Dept. of Health
All U.S. states require parents to immunize their children before sending them to school.
But in the majority of Western states - including Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho - parents can exempt their children from mandatory vaccines by signing a form.
Mary Selecky: "It's a one page form, the Certificate of Exemption. I fill out a couple of boxes. I sign it and I'm gone. It's quite easy."
Maybe too easy, says Washington's Secretary of Health Mary Selecky.
Mary Selecky: "There is a data point about Washington State that I'm not proud of. We have the highest exemption rate in the nation, Washington State of all 50 states."
In Washington, about six percent of kindergarteners come to class unvaccinated. Oregon is close behind at nearly 5.5 percent. In Idaho, around four percent of incoming kindergartners skipped at least some mandatory shots.
Across the region and including more grades, it adds up to more than 85,000 children.
So how did the Northwest get to be such fertile ground for vaccine refusals? There's a wide range of reasons.
Stay-at-home mom Nikki Housh claimed a philosophical exemption to enroll her two sons in pre-school and elementary school in Olympia.
Nikki Housh: "Washington state parents are really focused on what they're putting in their children's bodies."
Housh says she carefully researched each vaccine. She accepted some, but she had doubts about the necessity or safety of others.
Nikki Housh: "My biggest concern was that I read a lot of information about children injured by vaccines. Having a child with an immune system challenge I didn't want to complicate things for him any more."
Parents can also claim a religious exemption. But state statistics from Washington and Idaho show refusals based on church doctrine account for just a sliver of the total opt outs.
Another slice of parents don't trust the big drug companies that make most vaccines.
Then there are parents who simply rebel at the sheer number of shots babies and toddlers get these days if they follow the recommended immunization schedule.
Dr. Ed Marcuse saw this in his practice at Children's Hospital in Seattle.
Ed Marcuse: "A major concern of parents is that somehow the large number of vaccines will overwhelm their child's immune system."
Marcuse allays that by saying, "there is no scientific basis for that concern." Another thing he tells anxious parents is that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.
Ed Marcuse: "The fundamental issue is that we have two conflicting values. They are the freedom of the individual and the protection of public health. The state has responsibility to do both. And where these two things come in conflict is that if too many people opt out, our communities then become at risk."
The steadily rising number of immunization opt-outs is now drawing a response. The Washington Legislature is on the verge of sending the governor a measure that would make it harder to enroll unvaccinated kids in school. These parents would have to first consult with a medical professional.
The intention of the bill sponsors is to counter the "misinformation" about vaccines in the media and on the internet.
Vaccine skeptics like Ezra Eickmeyer testified against being forced into a possible confrontation with doctors or nurses.
Ezra Eickmeyer: "This is a decision that comes down to the parents making a parenting decision. We hold that decision to be very sacred."
Eickmeyer prefers the approach Oregon and Idaho are taking. Both states are working on education campaigns.
In April, the Oregon Immunization Program is reaching out to parents who may seek a vaccine exemption, and the health providers who serve them. Oregon has identified pockets in the state with high opt out rates. It's buying ads in those places in newspapers, parent magazines and movie theaters.
An agency spokeswoman says the ads will urge people to get the facts concerning immunization and direct them to a vaccine safety website. Skeptic Eickmeyer looked at the state website and judged it unpersuasive to him.
Separately, Idaho is devising a brochure with facts about immunization specifically for vaccine-averse parents. It would be given out beginning this summer at daycares, schools or doctors' offices when a parent asks for the exemption form.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, fewer than one percent of U.S. children receive no vaccines at all. A portion of that tide of immunization waivers may just reflect really busy lifestyles. Researchers speculate some parents find it easier to sign an opt out form than to collect all the medical records documenting their kids' shots.
On the Web:
Immunization exemption bills:
Washington House Bill 1015:
Senate Bill 5005 (ESB 5005):
Copyright 2011 Northwest News Network