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Northwest states move to counter rise in child immunization waivers

Child immunization rates in the Northwest lag behind national rates. Some say it's too easy to opt out of vaccinations, creating a public health threat. Many parents disagree. This 4-year old is ready to get a shot in Littleton, Colorado.
Jack Dempsey
AP Photo
Child immunization rates in the Northwest lag behind national rates. Some say it's too easy to opt out of vaccinations, creating a public health threat. Many parents disagree. This 4-year old is ready to get a shot in Littleton, Colorado.

Record numbers of parents in the Northwest are seeking waivers from mandatory child immunization requirements. The trend alarms public health officials. They say it creates increased risk for disease outbreaks. Washington, Oregon, and Idaho are all moving to sway vaccine skeptics.

All U.S. states require parents to immunize their children before sending them to school. Northwest Exemptions Highest in Nation

In the majority of Western states, Including Washington, Oregon, California, and Idaho, parents can exempt their children from mandatory vaccines by signing a form.

Washington's Secretary of Health Mary Selecky says maybe it's too easy.

"There is a data point about Washington State that I'm not proud of. We have the highest exemption rate in the nation, Washington State of all 50 states," says Selecky.

About 6% of kindergartners, in the state, come to class unvaccinated. Oregon is close behind at nearly 5.5% . In Idaho, around 4% of incoming kindergartners skipped at least some mandatory shots.

Across the region and including more grades, it adds up to more than 85,000 children.

So how did the Northwest get to be such fertile ground for vaccine refusals?

Wide Range of Reasons for Waivers

Stay at home mom Nikki Housh claimed a philosophical exemption to enroll her two sons in pre-school and elementary school in Olympia.

"Washington state parents are really focused on what they're putting in their children's bodies," says Housh.

Housh says she carefully researched each vaccine. She accepted some, but she had doubts about the necessity or safety of others.

"My biggest concern was that I read a lot of information about children injured by vaccines. Having a child with an immune system challenge I didn't want to complicate things for him any more," Housh exclaims.

Parents can also claim a religious exemption. But state statistics from Washington and Idaho show refusals based on church doctrine account for just a sliver of the total opt outs.

Another slice of parents don't trust the big drug companies that make most vaccines.

Then there are parents who simply rebel at the sheer number of shots babies and toddlers get these days if they follow the recommended immunization schedule.

Dr. Ed Marcuse saw this in his practice at Children's Hospital in Seattle.

"A major concern of parents is that somehow the large number of vaccines will overwhelm their child's immune system," explains Marcuse.

Marcuse allays that by saying "there is no scientific basis for that concern." Another thing he tells anxious parents is that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.

"The fundamental issue is that we have two conflicting values. They are the freedom of the individual and the protection of public health. The state has responsibility to do both. And where these two things come in conflict is that if too many people opt out, our communities then become at risk," Marcuse says.

State Considers Tougher Rules

The steadily rising number of immunization opt-outs is now drawing a response. The state Legislature is on the verge of sending the governor a measure that would make it harder to enroll unvaccinated kids in school. These parents would have to first consult with a medical professional.

The intention of the bill sponsors is to counter the "misinformation" about vaccines in the media and on the internet.

Vaccine skeptics like Ezra Eickmeyer testified against being forced into a possible confrontation with doctors or nurses.

"This is a decision that comes down to the parents making a parenting decision. We hold that decision to be very sacred," says Eickmeyer.

Eickmeyer prefers the approach Oregon and Idaho are taking. Both states are working on education campaigns.

According to national research, fewer than 1% of U.S. children receive no vaccines at all. A portion of that tide of immunization waivers may just reflect really busy lifestyles.

Researchers speculate some parents find it easier to sign an opt out form than to collect all the medical records documenting their kids' shots.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.