SEATTLE -- Most schools in Washington are failing to meet the state’s goal to have 95% of students complete all immunizations before entering kindergarten.
In the last school year 85% of kindergartners had all of their required immunizations.
Students are crowding hallways as they return to class. They may have supplies packed and minds ready to learn but the state Department of Health says too many kids aren’t protected their health, making outbreaks more likely.
“We’re definitely seeing pockets of families who are choosing not to vaccinate,” said Dr. Alex Hamling with Pacific Medical Center.
As a pediatrician, he says his patients who opt out of vaccines are generally doing so because of personal beliefs or misinformation about vaccines.
According to the state Department of Health, Washington state has one of the highest exemption rates in the country. While most exemptions are for personal/philosophical and religious reasons, Washington’s medical exemption rate during 2016-17 was 4 1/2 times higher than the national median of 0.2%.
“We think these diseases aren’t in our area or aren’t in the U.S. but we periodically see big outbreaks and big pockets when people choose not to vaccinate,” said Hamling.
He says back in 2015 pertussis, also known as whooping cough, skyrocketed. Our state had more than 400 cases that year.
Page six on this chart by the health department shows pertussis vaccine and MMR hovering just above 90%.
The state’s goal is 95% by 2020.
“That magic number of 95% is what’s going to help protect the general public with what’s called the herd immunity, meaning that if you and I are vaccinated, it's very unlikely that someone near us is going to catch the same disease,” said Hamling.
More than 1 million students are enrolled in Washington state schools.
Immunization rates vary by county. In Western Washington, Snohomish County is at 89.1%, King County at 88.8% and Pierce County at 91.8% of K-12 students who completed required immunizations for the 2017-2018 school year. San Juan County had one of the lowest rates in the state with 56.5%
Hamling says even a handful of kids in every school who opt out can cause diseases, such as measles, to spread rapidly.
“This can spread like wildfire in a school, so having 1, 2 or 3% of kids who may interact with the community or in close quarters with other children, suddenly those 2 or 3% become very important as we dip below that 95%,” said Hamling.
Washington state law allows opting out of vaccines for personal or religious beliefs.