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Schools across the state see a rise in nonmedical vaccine exemptions

Oregon’s rate of nonmedical exemptions for vaccinations is at an all-time high.

The rate of Oregon kindergartners whose parents cited nonmedical, also referred to as religious, exemptions from at least one of the required vaccines reached an all-time high of 6.4 percent this year. It was 5.8 percent last year.

Exemptions for kindergartners in that time period jumped in “26 county entities,” including Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington, according to a release from Oregonians for Healthy Children. Oregonians for Healthy Children is a coalition of organizations and individuals led by the Oregon Pediatric Society, a chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The coalition spearheaded Senate Bill 132, intended to reduce nonmedical exemptions from vaccines for children.

The coalition is “concerned with increased incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases in Oregon,” said Anne Stone, a policy consultant for the Oregon Pediatric Society, in a February letter to members of the state Senate Committee on Health Care, Human Services and Rural Health Policy.

In the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, 35 of 615 kindergartners, or 5.7 percent, had a religious exemption this year. The rate of exemptions for all grade levels was 4.25 percent. District officials did not provide 2012 data.

“State law only requires us to retain our exclusion report data for one year,” said Kathy Connell, assistant to the superintendent.

Nearby, Lake Oswego School District kindergartners with religious exemptions to vaccines increased from 5 percent in 2012 to 8 percent this year.

“Parents do not usually share with us why they are choosing a religious exemption,” said Ann Nelson, school district nurse. “It is the right of the parents to elect a religious exemption, and we do not ask for or question their reasons.”

Of the 395 Lake Oswego School District kindergartners, there were 31 with religious exemptions. Last year, 18 out of 379 kindergartners had religious exemptions. The rate also inched up overall.

Overall, there were 280 students with religious exemptions in Lake Oswego schools out of 6,830 students, or 4.1 percent of the total. In January 2012, there were 224 students out of 6,812 students with religious exemptions, 3.3 percent of the total. The district did not have data for previous years.

Senate Bill 132 would change state law to require parents seeking a nonmedical exemption to watch an online education video or to get a signed form from their health care provider. The law now requires children enrolled in child care and school to turn in a form signed by a parent that verifies they have gotten the correct shots in the arm. Parents who opt out must submit a form stating why.

A child enrolling in an Oregon school must be up to date on vaccinations including DTaP, a shot protecting against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, also called whooping cough.

From 2011 to 2012, 49 states and Washington, D.C., reported increases in pertussis, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Last year, Oregon was on a short list of states with an incidence of pertussis that was higher than the national one. Oregon’s rate was 23.3 per 100,000 people in 2012, as compared to the national average of 13.4 per 100,000 people, CDC documents state.

Last year, Oregon had more than 800 pertussis cases, the highest rate since the 1950s, according to Oregonians for Healthy Children. The new legislation could stop that upward trend, said Stone, former executive director of the Oregon Pediatric Society, in her February letter.

“Most parents seek information online about vaccines; information that is inaccurate and incomplete,” she said. “This legislation will ensure parents can get credible, medically based information about immunizations and vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Legislation similar to Senate Bill 132 passed in Washington in 2011, resulting in a 25 percent decrease in immunization exemptions, according to Oregonians for Healthy Children.

For more information, visit http://oregonpediatricsociety.org/advocacy/oregonians-for-healthy-children/immunization-education-campaign.

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