Fatal, infectious diseases are an abstraction for most Americans, however commonplace just a century ago. Vaccines literally are a panacea. Today, immunizations prevent between 2-3 million deaths a year around the world, primarily among children under the age of five, according to the World Health Organization. The death rate globally for measles, for example, has decreased by 74 percent since 2000, from an estimated 535,000 deaths per year to 139,300 deaths in 2010.
In the early 20th century, the childhood mortality rate before age five was 20 percent in the United States. Immunizations changed the equation. Today, many parents choose not to vaccinate their children based on the thoroughly debunked myth that it causes autism or, worse, figuring that vaccines are no longer necessary. And when parents choose not to vaccinate their children, it puts other lives at risk.
A certain level of the population must be immunized in order to fully protect the community, known as “herd immunity.” When enough people are vaccinated, then it’s more difficult for a disease to spread. Specifically, it protects the most vulnerable who cannot be vaccinated, such as infants, those with immune-system disorders, or even cancer patients.
In recent years, herd immunity has been compromised as parents choose not to immunize. One strategy to boost the immunization rate is to require proof of immunization for children to enter public schools. Today, 18 states allow parents to apply for an exemption based on religious or personal beliefs, and Washington has one of the highest rates of exemptions. In Snohomish County, 5.9 percent of K-12 children were granted exemptions for the 2012-2013 school year (higher than King County which came in at 5.2 percent.)
In 2011, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a law that requires a physician’s signature to verify that exemption-requesting parents have been given the facts on immunization. Currently Colorado’s legislature, a state with an even higher immunization-exemption rate than Washington, is considering a bill that would require parents to participate in an online education seminar. The political response was sparked by Colorado’s whooping cough outbreak, an outbreak that also hit the Pacific Northwest. In August 2011, a 27-day old infant died from whooping cough in Lake Stevens, exposed to a carrier but sadly too young to be immunized.
Vaccinations are designed not only to protect every child, but the community as a whole. That’s why Washington lawmakers must make immunization exemptions as strict and infrequent as possible.