Washington clamps down on vaccination exemptions

Washington is currently one of the easiest states to get a child exempted from vaccinations.

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Washington has one of the highest school immunization exemption rates in the nation, according to the state Department of Health.

The rates reflect kids who are not immunized for one of three reasons: medical, religious or parental opt-out.

Washington is one of the easiest states to get a child exempted from vaccinations, which are otherwise required before a child can be registered for child care, preschool and school, noted Tim Church, communications director for the DOH.

State policy made it easy for parents to exempt their child based only on convenience, he said. "Right now I can choose to sign a form that says I want an exemption, I sign it and that's it."

Washington's exemption rates have more than doubled over the last 10 years - during the 2009-2010 school year, more than six percent of children had a signed exemption, more than triple the national average, officials said.

The Walla Walla area has slightly lower numbers at four or five percent, said Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health. Part of that may not be parent-driven, but as simple as a missing immunization chart, he added. "Schools used to be lazy about getting those."

In a change to the vaccination picture, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Tuesday signed a bill that requires a parent or guardian to show they have received information from a health-care provider on the benefits and risks of immunization before opting out of school vaccination requirements.

Although parents will still have final say about vaccinating their son or daughter, the new rule means that beginning July 22, they must fill out and submit an updated Certificate of Exemption form to schools or day care centers.

Parents showing membership in a church or religious group that does not allow a health-care provider to give medical care to a child do not need to take this step, the DOH said.

The new law will get more complete information to parents who consider not immunizing, Crowder said.

It's a good idea, he believes. "Some parents hear something and go on the Internet. They go to places like anti-vaccine groups and get the bejeezus scared out of them."

Since Walla Walla County's infectious disease rate is fairly low, those parents may not see any consequences to not vaccinating, Crowder explained. "They think ‘it's just not worth it to me.'"

Unvaccinated kids are more likely to catch and spread serious illnesses such as whooping cough and measles, which can be prevented by vaccines, said the state DOH. Kids who aren't fully immunized may be excluded from attending school, preschool, or child care if a disease outbreak occurs.

"Childhood immunizations save lives and are one of the most effective ways to protect kids from serious, preventable illnesses," says Secretary of Health Mary Selecky. "There's a lot of confusing information about vaccine circulating around, this law makes sure that parents will get reliable facts from one of their most trusted sources - a health care provider."

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