This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
When it comes to legislation pertaining to childhood vaccinations, state lawmakers should heed the experts – like the Washington State Medical Association and the Washington Academy of Family Physicians.
They should politely but firmly reject the medical opinions of people who get their information from questionable Internet sites and quacks.
The legislation in question is House Bill 1015 and its companion Senate Bill 5005. It requires that parents who don’t want their children to be immunized against such diseases as polio, whooping cough, measles and diphtheria submit proof that a health provider has informed them of the risks and benefits of immunization.
Immunization is required for children to enter public school, but parents are allowed to waive that requirement by signing a form claiming medical, religious or philosophical reasons. Public health officials are concerned that so many parents are opting out that the “herd immunity” benefit of immunization is in danger of being lost – threatening the outbreak of diseases not often seen anymore in this country.
Herd immunity refers to the protection from disease provided to unimmunized people due to a high rate of immunization in the community as a whole.
Washington has one of the highest immunization opt-out rates in the country. Thirty other states don’t allow an exemption for the nebulous “philosophical” reasons, and two don’t allow it for religious reasons.
States have an interest in promoting childhood immunization for public health reasons. Some children can’t be immunized for genuine medical reasons, and their health could be compromised if too many of their schoolmates’ parents opt out.
Some parents who sign the waiver do so out of real concern that vaccinations threaten their children’s health. Perhaps they read about the British doctor whose research linked vaccination with autism – research that has been thoroughly repudiated as falsified. Maybe they’ve read one of the many scare articles on the Internet, and they’d rather not take a chance.
Their fear is understandable, if not substantiated. Only a very few problems have been traced to vaccines, and the risk is infinitesimally small compared to that posed by diseases that once routinely killed thousands of children each year.
Parents who waive vaccination should realize that their children will be vulnerable to diseases brought to this country by unimmunized visitors, and they face a high risk of disease if they ever travel abroad, particularly to Third World countries.
Parents who sign waivers out of fear are in the minority. Doctors say that by far the greatest reason parents don’t get their children immunized is sheer inertia: They’re too busy with other matters to bother scheduling an appointment. It’s easier to just sign the waiver than to get the child vaccinated.
If the legislation under consideration gets those parents to attend to such a basic health care need, it will go a long way toward preserving the herd immunity for all children.