With concern being raised across Washington about the availability of vaccine against the H1N1 virus, it’s hard to understand the stubborn lack of enthusiasm in this state for other vaccines against more mundane illnesses, such as chickenpox and measles.
Recent reports indicate that for teens and younger children, Washington state’s vaccination rate lags behind that for the nation as a whole. But being average would be no cause for comfort, because the nation as a whole is well behind its Healthy People 2010 goals for vaccination.
The latest report, which came out last week, does contain a bright spot. Surprisingly, Washington outperformed the rest of the country for what is probably the most controversial vaccine on the list – that given to girls as young as 11 to protect them from the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus that can lead to cervical cancer.
It’s plausible that the controversy around the vaccine itself, plus the decision to make it available for every eligible Washington girl or woman ages 9 to 19, may have gotten the word out about the level of risk from the disease and the effectiveness of the three-dose vaccination in preventing it.
That theory is consistent with a phenomenon that state health workers talk about with regard to differing East Coast and West Coast attitudes about health care. The Western culture, observes Michele Roberts, health promotion and communication manager for the state immunization program, puts a high value on preventive behaviors and personal responsibility. People at this end of the nation tend to make lifestyle choices designed to keep them healthy, but when it comes to health care steps, they like to study issues for themselves.
The knowledge that vaccines, like other medicines, come with risks gives some parents pause. It takes time for them to dig deeply enough into the claims and counterclaims to conclude what studies have confirmed: The risks of taking the vaccines are outweighed by the risks of not taking them.
Meanwhile, Washington law allows parents to exempt their children from vaccination requirements on the strength of mere personal philosophical objections.
It’s not that the law needs to be restricted; it needs to be expanded. Lawmakers need to add a provision that lets parents file exemptions, but only after receiving information about the stakes.
In a time when national health care reform debate has many emphasizing the value of prevention, the self-sufficient Western spirit should fit right in. The state should encourage and augment it.