Vaccination exemptionrequests hit record high statewide
Despite a 2013 law aimed at boosting child immunization rates, the number of Oregonians seeking nonmedical exemptions to mandatory kindergarten vaccinations hit a record high this school year, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
The nonmedical exemption rate statewide rose to 7.5 percent this year — higher than the 7 percent rate during the 2013-14 school year, when the law was passed to address declining vaccination rates among the state's nearly 700,000 schoolchildren.
Health care providers play a crucial role in educating parents about the need for vaccinations, said Stacy de Assis Matthews, immunization law coordinator for the health authority's Oregon Immunization Program.
Yet education efforts face a daunting popular culture belief that immunizations can cause autism and other problems.
The 2013 law — which required parents to jump through more hoops to obtain a nonmedical exemption — initially decreased the nonmedical exemption rate from 7 percent to 5.8 percent in 2015. But the following year, the rate began to climb again, first to 6.2 percent in 2016, then to 6.5 percent in 2017 and finally, to 7.5 percent this year.
Despite the statewide trend, local nonmedical exemption rates have stayed relatively flat during the past five years. In Crook County, rates have gone as low as 2.7 percent in 2015 and as high as 5.9 percent in 2017, however for three of the past five years, the rate has landed between 4.2 and 4.4 percent.
"We are truly not seeing a big increase or decrease by any means in our county," said Anita Ogden, immunization coordinator for Crook County Health Department.
Elsewhere in Oregon, nonmedical exemption rates for students in grades K-12 range this year from a low of 1 percent in Morrow County to a high of 10 percent in Josephine County. Individual Oregon school and child care center rates are available on OHA's School Immunization Coverage webpage at http://www.healthoregon.org/immdatamap.
"While more nonmedical exemptions mean fewer children are being immunized, the vast majority of Oregon parents and guardians still choose to fully immunize their children," de Assis Matthews said. "Most parents and guardians know that immunization is still the best way to protect children against vaccine-preventable diseases such as whooping cough and measles."
But the decline in vaccinations has coincided with outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease. More than a dozen students in Lane County, including two at the University of Oregon in Eugene, contracted whooping cough earlier this spring, according to media reports. In December, about a dozen cases of the disease were reported at schools in Clark County, Washington.
Oregon law requires parents who seek a nonmedical exemption to submit documentation that they watched an educational video on the health authority's website or consulted with a health care provider. About 95 percent of parents choose to watch the online video, de Assis Matthews said.
"That is not to say parents aren't talking to health care providers," she said. "Anecdotally, we are hearing from health care providers that they do have discussions with parents and if parents are still wanting to claim an exemption, the providers ask them to watch the online video."
Parents are not required to give a reason for their objection to immunizations.
The anti-vaccination movement dates back to 1998, when a reputable medical journal, The Lancet, published a study by British physician Andrew Wakefield, who claimed there might be a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination to autism. That study was subsequently and overwhelmingly debunked by the vast majority of researchers, according to a 2013 history by the Columbia Journalism Review.
Rates of autism continue to rise every year. The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed the developmental disorder affects one out of every 59 children in a count of 11 communities across the United States.
The scare over vaccinations started to gain momentum in 1999, when the Federal Drug Administration found there was no evidence that thimerosal in vaccines was harmful, but as a precaution, recommended removing the ingredient from vaccines given to infants. The panic intensified in 2000 when former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife declined to disclose whether their son, Leo, had been immunized, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. Years later, the couple said he had, in fact, been vaccinated on schedule, the journal reported.
Subsequent studies by the federal Centers for Disease Control have found no evidence to support a link between vaccines and autism.