The right information on vaccines
In the past few years, Vermont has taken some good steps to reduce the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases such as whooping cough and measles. The state’s It’s OK to Ask program is designed to give parents a place to ask questions about immunizations of public health experts. Parents seek information, and we should seek to give them that information at every juncture possible.
While the effort continues, Vermont’s Department of Health has released data that clearly highlights the fact more work is needed. The numbers show a third of our public schools fall below the 90 percent immunization rate needed to protect our communities. To protect those children who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons, or are too young to be vaccinated, we need to achieve something called herd immunity — when enough people in every community or school are immunized, so that those who can’t be are protected. Herd immunity occurs when 90 percent of a community is immunized. Unfortunately, perhaps alarmingly, according to the data, dozens of schools have just 60 percent or 70 percent of their students immunized, and some schools falling below the 50 percent mark.
Having super-localized numbers available allows state health officials to understand where the most vulnerable districts are and follow up with strategic, targeted education and awareness efforts. It’s also valuable because, as is the case with Vermont, statewide data often masks areas of under-vaccination, allowing for misperceptions that we’re doing fine.
School-by-school data is also important for parents. It allows them to know if their child is at a higher risk for infectious diseases because a large population of their school isn’t fully immunized.
To that end, at the start of every school year, we should require schools to prominently post their specific immunization rates, including how many families claim a medical, religious or philosophical exemption. The numbers are just that: numbers. They are not names, so no one’s privacy is violated. Parents of immuno-compromised children who can’t be vaccinated have a right to know what risk their child is facing. If it was your child, wouldn’t you want to know?
Unfortunately Vermont now has the dubious distinction of having the second-highest vaccine exemption rate in the country, largely due to families taking advantage of the philosophical exemption. Most states don’t have that option and of those that do, several have passed laws making it harder for families to claim a personal belief that prohibits them from immunizing their children. Following a law to tighten the exemption process in Washington, the state’s exemption rate dropped by roughly a quarter in just the first year.
Information provides education. The more we know, the better off we are. At the start of every school year, in addition to having each school publicly post its immunization rates, they should also be required to report the number of medical, religious and philosophical exemptions filed for each required vaccine as well as the number of students who are attending the school under provisional admittance, meaning they are in the process of complying with the required vaccine regimen.
Vaccines are safe and effective. They have eliminated deadly diseases. But without them, some of those diseases are creeping back. Measles is one of those. Thought to be eliminated in 2000, we are now seeing outbreaks across the U.S.
Misinformation about the safety of vaccines is dangerous. So too is information that’s hidden from public view.
Kevin Mullin is a Republican state senator from Rutland County.