Sara Powell didn’t hesitate to get her 4-year-old son Jackson vaccinated about three years ago. But when her 1-year-old daughter Finleigh came along, Powell said she struggled with the decision.
Strong anti-vaccination opinions from acquaintances and information online led Powell to question whether to have her daughter vaccinated, the Toledo resident said.
However, the measles outbreak in Clark County this winter, along with a discussion with her children’s pediatrician, helped Powell make up her mind.
“I was terrified because Finleigh was too young to be vaccinated and could be exposed (during the outbreak),” she said. “I just knew it was something I needed to get done. … I felt like it was the right thing to do for my kids and the community.”
Finleigh received a round of immunizations Thursday at the Child and Adolescent Clinic in Longview as part of her regular schedule, including her first dose of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
More families have visited the clinic to get the MMR immunization since a law passed in May removing the personal exemption for the vaccine, said Dr. Wes Hendrickson, a pediatrician at the clinic. But it’s unclear how many students who had the exemption will be out of compliance when school starts.
“A lot of these are families already established at the clinic, but they haven’t vaccinated or haven’t had a reason to get their child vaccinated before,” Hendrickson said. “Some are coming in and getting just that one done, and some are saying, ‘If this goes okay, we will come in and get other ones.’”
Under the previous state law, children attending public and private schools and child-care facilities were required to be immunized against certain diseases, but parents could exempt their child from the immunizations for medical, religious or personal reasons. The new law removes the personal exemption for the MMR vaccine. Parents can still exempt their children from the MMR vaccine for medical or religious reasons. And all three exemptions apply for other vaccines.
Common concerns about vaccinations include adverse reactions, links to autism and potentially harmful ingredients. According to the state Department of Health; serious reactions to vaccinations are rare; vaccines and autism are unrelated; and parents can receive details about vaccine ingredients if they are concerned.
Opponents of the new law argued it was wrong to take away parental rights. Informed Choice Washington, an organization that advocates for “scientific integrity in vaccine policy and true informed consent,” held rallies at the state Capitol opposing the bill.
During a February hearing on the measure, opponents questioned the safety of vaccines, the Columbian reported. Dr. Toni Bark, an Illinois medical doctor, said some people are more likely to have adverse reactions to immunizations.
“Vaccines are not safe and effective for everyone,” she said.
All of Cowlitz County’s legislators except Longview Democrat Sen. Dean Takko voted against the final version of the measure. When the law passed the House in March, the lawmakers said although they supported vaccinations, they thought the decision should belong to parents or guardians.
The new measure allows schools and child-care providers to exclude children who are not vaccinated, don’t have a certificate of exemption or who aren’t complying with an immunization schedule. Students not in compliance will have 30 days from the first day of attendance to provide required documentation. During that time, they can continue to go to school.
The new law also requires employees and volunteers at child care centers to provide immunization records indicating they have received the MMR vaccine or proof of immunity.
Children with the personal exemption for the MMR vaccine were not “grandfathered in.” They will need to see their doctor about getting the immunization or a different exemption.
In Cowlitz County, 5% of kindergartners had an exemption to vaccinations for the 2017-2018 school year, according to school immunization record data published by the state Department of Health. Of those, 46 or 3.7% were for personal reasons.
“We know that the vast majority of people get their vaccines, and all of them,” Hendrickson said. “The actual rate of non-vaccinators in the community is very low.”
According to the school data, 92.7% of Cowlitz County kindergartners completed their MMR immunization. That doesn’t include homeschooled children.
The other source of state vaccination data comes from the Washington Immunization Information System. According to the system, 68% of 4- to 6-year-olds in Cowlitz County completed two doses of the MMR vaccine in 2018.
Religious and medical exemptions still stand for MMR and all three exemptions are still available for other vaccines. According to the school data, only one Cowlitz County kindergartner had a religious exemption last year, but Hendrickson said there’s always concern that people will abuse the exemption.
“As far as I know, there are no organized religions that have a prohibition against getting the MMR vaccine,” he said.
Dr. Blaine Tolby of the Child and Adolescent Clinic said the measure is a “tough walk between community benefit and individual right.”
However, he said one reason anti-vaccination rhetoric has increased in the last couple years is because the effectiveness of immunizations means children are no longer dying or suffering consequences from measles or other diseases.
“There is a lot of inaccurate information on the internet, but (the vaccine) is one of the greatest gifts of science,” Tolby said.