County board of health supports bill limiting vaccine exemptions

In response to the recent measles outbreak in Clark County, the Island County Board of Health is taking a rare stance on proposed state legalization

The board voted unanimously to send a letter in support of House Bill 1638, which would remove personal objection exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.

“We believe it represents a public health threat, and it’s a threat to children,” said Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair, chairwoman of the board of health.

Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said the board of health is “very selective about advocacy,” but members felt the cause was worthy of support because measles “poses a real and present threat” to the community.

Measles is a highly contagious airborne illness that causes a rash, fever and sometimes deadly complications if a vulnerable person —- such as an infant or person with a compromised immune system — is infected. To prevent an outbreak, experts recommend “herd” or “community” immunity, which is a vaccination rate of 95 percent or higher.

The risk to Island County arises if unimmunized people are traveling to areas where they might get exposed to the disease, which can be contagious for almost two weeks before symptoms appear, said Dr. Brad Thomas, public health officer.

Other non-vaccinated people and infants who are too young to have had the immunization then have a high likelihood of also becoming infected, even just by sharing a room with the carrier, Thomas said.

In October, Oak Harbor School District reported 200 students were out of compliance with vaccine requirements. The remaining 97 percent of students were compliant. A total of 398 students have waivers.

In Coupeville schools, there were 154 students out of compliance in October. With approximately 897 students in the district, that’s only about 83 percent compliance. Coupeville and Oak Harbor school district officials did not provide updated vaccination rates by press time.

In the South Whidbey School District, just over 91 percent of kindergartners through sixth graders are in full compliance with immunization requirements.

Nearly 94 percent of students in grades 7 through 12 are fully vaccinated, according to Superintendent Jo Moccia.

The proposed legislation, which was voted out of the house Health Care and Wellness Committee on Feb. 13, would maintain religious and medical exemptions. Currently, Washington state is one of 17 states that allow parents to present a philosophical or personal exemption from school or daycare immunization requirements.

“There just really isn’t any good reason medically not to do the vaccine,” said Thomas.

St. Clair also emphasized the lack of scientific evidence to back many of the concerns parents express as justification for not vaccinating their children.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, extensive studies show there is no link between vaccines and autism. The agency said although the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine can have mild side effects, it is safe and effective.

Thomas noted that in addition to health concerns, a measles outbreak comes at a high cost to the county.

Each potential case must be tracked down and the person exposed has to have information given about maintaining isolation, he said.

“The problem with measles is it really requires a huge amount of follow-up because of the huge number of people that can be exposed in one setting,” said Thomas.

Children who become infected must stay quarantined for 21 days, which can also present a hardship to families if they have to stay home from work to care for their child, he said.

The board’s letter of support was sent to local legislators in Olympia. The bill was referred to the rules committee for review to determine if it’ll appear on the House floor for a vote.

In the meantime, St. Clair said she’s working on outreach to encourage parents to vaccinate their children.

“Let’s begin with education of how important this is and what research tells us is most effective,” she said. “We have a communal responsibility to be aware of this.”

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