Washington is experiencing an epidemic of worry over vaccine safety. The state leads the nation in the percentage of parents opting out of vaccinations for their kindergarten-age children, but a new state law could be poised to change that distinction.
More than 6 percent of Washington kindergartners were missing one or more immunizations in the 2009-2010 school year. The most commonly skipped vaccine was the chicken pox vaccine, The Daily Herald of Everett reported Sunday.
Since 1997, there’s been a steady, statewide decline in the number of school children who are fully vaccinated.
A new state law that went into effect in July seeks to close a loophole that parents used to avoid providing proof of vaccinations to schools. Now, parents must meet with a medical provider, get a signed letter confirming that the consultation took place and provide the note to child-care centers or schools.
“The world has changed,” said Dr. Jack Stephens, a pediatrician at The Everett Clinic. “It used to be the unimmunized child was the child of an economically disadvantaged family with poor access to health care.
“Nowadays, it’s usually well-educated parents of higher social status who do their own independent research and tell you what they’re willing to do.”
The reasons for skipping or delaying vaccinations vary from family to family. For 32-year-old Maria Rippo of Bothell, the issue is concern about what vaccinations could do to her children. She has chosen to have her four children receive only one vaccine, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.
“Some people feel we’re the enemy because we’re not vaccinating,” she said.
Children who aren’t fully immunized can be sent home during outbreaks of a disease for which they have not been vaccinated.
Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District, said vaccinations create a firewall against the spread of contagious diseases.
“This isn’t about protecting one child; it’s about protecting the entire community,” he said.
But parents have questions and worries about vaccines.
Nationally, more than three-quarters of parents have at least one question or concern about their child’s vaccines, said Glen Nowak, a senior adviser who specializes in immunization and respiratory disease issues for the CDC.
“Our point of view is immunizations are one of the top medical achievements of all time,” he said. “They work really well at preventing illness and disease.”
Nationally, more than 10 million vaccines are given each year to children less than a year old. The number of recommended vaccinations for children — now at 16 — is the largest it’s ever been, he said.
Health officials say vaccine-preventable diseases are on the rise. More than 600 cases of whooping cough were reported in Washington last year, double the previous year.
Questions over the safety of vaccines came into the mainstream in the late 1990s, triggered by international debate over a claimed association between the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella and autism.
But last year the British Medical Journal, which originally published a study on the alleged autism-vaccine link in 1998, took the unusual step of retracting the paper, citing the falsification of data in the study and calling its conclusions “fraudulent.”
Individuals and organizations concerned about vaccine safety point to the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program as proof that vaccines sometimes have unwanted side effects.
Data from the federal website show that just over $2 billion has been paid out since 1989 in legal cases claiming problems associated with vaccines.
But scientists say it’s hard to prove cause and effect when it comes to vaccines and side effects, in part because millions are vaccinated with no long-term health problems. But doubt remains.