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Time to tighten vaccination law

The mumps outbreak is a good time to revisit the importance of “herd immunity” and the vaccination exemptions allowed under state law.

As of Wednesday, the Spokane Regional Health District had ordered more than 200 unvaccinated public school students to stay home. It’s for a good reason.

State law allows unvaccinated children to attend public schools if parents or guardians object on religious, medical or personal grounds. Religion is seldom invoked, and the medical exemption requires a signed note from a health care provider. That’s an important requirement, because of the proliferation of crackpot theories about the “dangers” of vaccinations.

Unlike many states, Washington still allows parents to opt out for personal reasons. The reason may be as simple as considering the shots a bother. That’s a shortsighted roll of the dice, because unvaccinated kids are far more likely to contract a communicable disease. Even if they don’t, they can be sent home for weeks at a time. Those parents now face child care challenges and the prospect of their children falling behind in school.

That sounds like a far greater hassle than getting them immunized in the first place.

Some vaccination critics have pointed to early reports that most of the children who contracted the mumps were vaccinated. But no vaccine is 100 percent effective. The current MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) is about 88 percent effective, meaning it doesn’t help 12 out of 100 people. There are far more vaccinated children than unvaccinated children.

The figure to pay attention to, according to the Spokane Regional Health District website, is this: “People who have received two doses of the MMR vaccine are still about nine times less likely to get mumps than unvaccinated people who have the same exposure to mumps virus.”

The vaccine isn’t causing the mumps; nor is it ineffectual. It is preventing the outbreak from becoming larger. So is the policy that keeps unvaccinated children away from schools.

As older readers know, measles, mumps and chicken pox were common childhood diseases. So was polio, which crippled children and could be fatal. Breakthroughs in immunology and mass vaccinations have largely eradicated these diseases. But in recent years, there’s been growing parental resistance based on the false belief that the measles vaccine is linked to autism. When fewer members of the herd are immunized, it increases the chances that diseases such as measles, mumps and whooping cough will break out.

Schools are justified in requiring up-to-date immunization records. Public health officials are justified in sending unvaccinated children home.

But state lawmakers are not justified in allowing the personal exemption, which is one of the reasons the state’s compliance rate is relatively low. Past efforts to tighten the law have failed. A mumps outbreak is the perfect reason to try again.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”


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