By Mark Beatty
For The Herald
Washington is one of 17 states that allow parents the ability to opt out of school vaccination requirements for personal or philosophical reasons.
Washington has also experienced three large measles outbreaks in the past 10 years, and one woman died in one of those outbreaks. The majority of states allow only medical and religious exemptions to school vaccine rules, and those states have seen fewer outbreaks than states that allow exemption for personal reasons.
The measles outbreak unfolding in Clark County has highlighted the critical role vaccines play in keeping us all safe and healthy. There have been 54 confirmed cases of measles linked to this outbreak, as of Feb. 13. Of those case, 51 were children and most were 10 years or younger. In addition, 47 had not received the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
As the health officer for Snohomish County, I applaud the efforts of Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, to reduce the number of exemptions allowed for students entering our schools through his legislation, HB 1638. A map of counties showing the highest student immunization exemption rates developed by the Washington state Department of Health shows there is considerable room for improvement in Snohomish County, with a vaccination rate between 83.5 percent and 86 percent. The state Health Department also publishes an annual list of schools in the state with kindergarten vaccination rates of 95 percent or more. For the 2017-18 school year, only 16 of the 264 total schools listed were in Snohomish County.
A few key points to consider as proposed legislation makes its way through the Legislature in the coming days:
• The MMR vaccine is safe. Contrary to misinformation circulated over the years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration agree on the MMR vaccine’s safety. There are several systems that monitor vaccine safety, and any issues are promptly reported to health officials like me. Furthermore, the Snohomish Health District’s childhood vaccine program works to ensure local providers maintain proper compliance protocols and standards for safe storage and handling are followed.
• The MMR vaccine is effective. There is no treatment for measles, which is dangerous disease that can lead to death or lifelong health complications. The vaccine, on the other hand, is very effective. Two doses of MMR vaccine are about 97 percent effective in preventing measles; one dose is about 93 percent effective.
• Removing personal exemptions protects the safety and liberties of others. In Snohomish County, 90.2 percent of kindergartners completed the MMR vaccine during the 2017-18 school year. The 9.8 percent without completed MMR vaccines were primarily personal exemptions (4.6 percent) or non-compliant with school requirements (4.5 percent), and the remaining being either medical, religious or religious membership exemptions.
Measles is one of the most contagious diseases, and a response effort is swift. If a student or staff member in a school is confirmed with measles, we would move to exclude all other students and staff members within that school who are not immunized until the risk of exposure is over. In some cases, this can be for more than three weeks. By removing personal exemptions — and providing funding for public health outreach and partnerships with schools to decrease those non-compliance rates — we are better able to protect the few who cannot be vaccinated because of medical or religious reasons.
• Vaccines save taxpayers and businesses money. Investing in prevention and public health infrastructure has a strong return on investment.
Returning to the Clark County outbreak, the cost has exceeded $900,000 in response efforts with no end in sight. It is drawing upon more than 100 employees from around the state, pulling them away from other critical jobs in the communities they serve. Dozens of local businesses have been affected by the outbreak. Instead of public health agencies having to spend their limited resources on these emergency responses, those 51 children with measles could have received free MMR vaccines through the childhood vaccine program if personal exemptions were not in place.
At the end of the day, our children deserve safe and healthy places to live, learn and play in Snohomish County. The increasing number of students with personal exemptions for immunizations puts this at risk. I hope you’ll join me in supporting efforts to fix this.
Dr. Mark Beatty is the health officer for the Snohomish Health District. In addition to specializing in pediatrics and preventive medicine, he has experience working in the vaccine industry and at the International Vaccine Institute.