Washington state has long had a childhood immunization rate that lags the national average, because, in part, it’s easier for parents to sign a form that exempts their children from vaccinations. While some parents opt out for religious or philosophical reasons, others may feel that getting their children inoculated is too great an inconvenience.
It’s the latter group that is the subject of companion bills in the Legislature, and for good reason. The value of having children immunized in schools and day care centers is that it contains the spread of contagious diseases. The problem is that many parents are busy and it can be tempting to merely sign an opt-out form rather than schedule an appointment or track down medical records.
But the consequences of this harried reaction can be serious.
Companion bills moving through the Legislature would force parents to think the issue over by requiring them to provide a signed statement from a health care provider showing they have discussed childhood immunizations before opting out. Parents who can show they belong to a church or organization that is opposed to vaccinations would be exempt.
The hope is that through these conversations parents would learn the value of immunizations. Many people forget the scourge of polio and other childhood diseases that were common a few decades ago. Because they don’t witness measles and other maladies, they don’t make the connection between the decline of these diseases and the immunization regimen that contained them. Some parents may even be willing to risk it for their children, but they need to learn how that decision can lead to wider outbreaks of diseases such as whooping cough and diphtheria.
Opting out can also drive up public health spending, though that wouldn’t necessarily be a discussion point for health care providers.
Public health officials support this effort. The medical community endorses the value of vaccinations. Washington state has made strides in increasing childhood vaccination rates. For instance, the 2008 Immunization Survey shows that 73.5 percent of children 19 to 35 months old have had a complete immunization series, up from 69 percent in 2007. But the state still lags the national average of 76 percent.
One chief difference is that other states do not make it as easy to opt out of vaccinations. Washington might be able to close the gap if the Legislature toughens that requirement.