Measles outbreak is a teaching moment — for parents

Snohomish County school districts are reminding parents to vaccinate their children.

ARLINGTON — Public school officials in Snohomish County are taking a measured response to a measles outbreak in southwest Washington.

No cases have been reported in the county, but local school districts are seizing the moment to remind parents about vaccination requirements for students. And some districts are recording higher rates of vaccination this school year compared to the year before.

It may be too soon to link improvement with what’s happening in Clark County where there have been 47 confirmed measles cases since the start of the year, with 34 of the infected being children under the age of 10.

But the circumstances are a reason Arlington Public Schools sent a message Friday to parents of unvaccinated students, alerting them that their children could be barred from school if a single case is confirmed anywhere in the county.

“We want to make sure everyone is aware of (the outbreak) and that this is something that could impact you,” said Gary Sabol, the district’s director of communications, who signed the message. “We would love all of our kids to be immunized. Our hope is they turn in their record.”

The note went to parents of 325 students across all grades with no record of measles vaccination on file, and those who have received an exemption from vaccination from the state Department of Health. They account for 5.7 percent of the 5,710 students enrolled in the district. The total includes 36 kindergartners, about 9 percent of district-wide enrollment this school year.

In the note, the district encourages parents to get the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine “as soon as possible” or provide the district with a record showing they’ve had their shot.

Clark County is the epicenter of the outbreak, accounting for 47 of the state’s 48 confirmed cases.

It is home to Battle Ground High School, where hundreds of students and their families arrived for the state cheerleading championships last Friday and Saturday.

Everett students bound for the competition got a note about the situation ahead of time from school district officials. It pointed out that there had been no confirmed cases at the high school and the Clark County public health director supported the event.

In Marysville, students from 10th Street Middle School had a field trip Jan. 29 to a destination in Clark County. Before they departed, the district made their families aware of who to contact if they had concerns, and made clear they did not have to participate.

Information about the outbreak has also been posted on the middle school’s website.

“We are providing resources to parents,” said Jodi Runyon, district spokeswoman.

A sign posted Jan. 30 at The Vancouver Clinic in Vancouver, Washington, warns patients and visitors of a measles outbreak. (Gillian Flaccus / Associated Press file)

A sign posted Jan. 30 at The Vancouver Clinic in Vancouver, Washington, warns patients and visitors of a measles outbreak. (Gillian Flaccus / Associated Press file)

This year’s outbreak is drawing attention to the wide range of vaccination rates in schools. And some state lawmakers want to remove a provision that allows parents to opt out of the measles vaccine for personal or philosophical beliefs.

Edmonds School District reported 92.3 percent of its kindergartners vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella in the 2017-18 school year, the highest of any district in the county. Everett followed at 92.1, with Sultan, Mukilteo, Northshore, Monroe, Snohomish and Marysville all at 90 percent or higher.

Stanwood-Camano School District recorded the lowest percentage, 79.1, with Lake Stevens School District at 81.7 percent.

Lake Stevens District spokeswoman Jayme Taylor said that the state’s numbers represent a snapshot in time. They don’t account for the non-compliant children who would later get vaccinated.

Last school year, 90 percent of all kindergartners in Snohomish County received the MMR vaccination, according to numbers from the state Department of Health. That’s higher than many other counties, but still below the recommended 95 percent for herd immunity — when enough people are vaccinated that it’s difficult for a disease to spread.

It was the 12th straight year of decline for the county, dating back to the 96.4 percent recorded in 2005.

The trend could turn around as several districts are reporting higher percentages in this school year.

In Everett schools, the compliance rate for all vaccines, not just MMR, hit 95.3 percent in October, officials said. Marysville had recorded 92.4 percent and Arlington was at 94.3 percent. Mukilteo School District also saw a slight increase, from 91.2 to 91.8 percent.

Meantime, the rate statewide was 90.6 percent for 2017. It was the best since hitting 91.7 percent in 2012, though way below the 97.6 percent mark reached in 1998.

The state Department of Health requires children attending public schools to be vaccinated against preventable diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps and pertussis or whooping cough. They also can enroll if they show proof of acquired immunity to the diseases.

Enforcement is not hard line.

For example, when students enroll in Everett public schools, they are placed in a 30-day conditional status before they might be kept out, according to officials. That gives students and their families a month to present their vaccination record and certification of exemption.

School officials expend a lot of effort to help families understand the benefit of vaccinations, not only for their child’s health but also the well-being of the rest of students.

“Immunization compliance has been a focus of our health services team for the past few years,” said Kari Johnson, nurse supervisor for the Everett School District.

Under state law, vaccination exemptions can be obtained for medical, personal or religious beliefs. Personal exemptions make up the vast majority of exemptions granted by the state.

The current outbreak spurred Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, to draft legislation erasing the personal exemption for the MMR vaccine. A hearing on House Bill 1638 is set for 8 a.m. Friday in Olympia.

In 2015, Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, tried unsuccessfully to get rid of language in state law allowing parents to not vaccinate their child because of personal beliefs. She introduced a bill to repeal the personal exemption entirely. Harris’ bill, which Robinson supports, is narrower in focus by only eliminating the personal exemption for measles vaccination.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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