VANCOUVER, Wash. — More than 20 percent of Clark County kindergartners entered the school year without all of the required immunizations.

The state Department of Health released the immunization rates for students who entered kindergarten last fall early May. Statewide, 85 percent of kindergartners had all of the required vaccines. Clark County lagged behind the state average, with about 78 percent of the county’s 5,671 kindergarten students entering school fully immunized.

The local immunization rates are cause for concern for public health officials.

“I’m not happy to see that we’ve got some low immunization rates around the county,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer and public health administrator.

Melnick is particularly concerned about the local immunization rates for measles. Countywide, 85.3 percent of kindergartners were up-to-date on their measles, mumps and rubella vaccines. The rates in some districts are much lower, such as La Center School District (72.2 percent) and Evergreen Public Schools (79.4 percent).

“Measles, because it’s so exquisitely contagious, you need immunization rates around 95 percent for good herd immunity,” Melnick said.

Herd immunity is when a sufficient portion of a population is vaccinated against an infectious disease to make its spread from person to person unlikely. Each disease has a different herd immunity threshold.

Herd immunity is important for protecting those who cannot be vaccinated, whether for medical reasons or because they’re too young, Melnick said.

“You’re not only putting your own child at risk, you’re putting other kids at risk,” he said of not immunizing. “And that’s really upsetting.”

Clark County also had a higher percentage of kindergartners with immunization exemptions — 7.1 percent — than the state average of 4.7 percent. Immunization exemptions can be granted for medical, religious and personal reasons.

The majority of local exemptions, 5.4 percent, are personal exemptions, which only require a form signed by a physician, attesting that the parent is aware of the risks of not vaccinating.

After state law changed in 2011 to require the physician sign-off, exemption rates dropped. Since then, however, they’ve plateaued and even started to creep back up in the last year or two, Melnick said.

In addition to the exemptions, about 12 percent of local kindergartners were out of compliance, meaning the student was not fully immunized, was missing the required immunization documentation or exemption paperwork. Statewide, 8.2 percent of kids entered kindergarten out of compliance.

Locally, La Center School District had the lowest percentage of kindergartners entering school fully immunized (68.5 percent) and the highest exemption rate (12 percent). The district also had about 19 percent of kindergartners out of compliance to start the school year. Ridgefield had the best immunization rate in the county (94.2 percent) and lowest exemption rate (4 percent).

In Evergreen Public Schools, only 70.1 percent of kindergarten students were fully immunized last fall, but the district’s exemption rate was among the lowest in the county at 5.8 percent. However, nearly 23 percent of Evergreen kindergartners were out of compliance.

The immunization and exemption rates varied at elementary schools across the county. Seven elementary schools had immunization rates of 90 percent or better last fall, and seven schools had 10 percent or more of their kids with vaccine exemptions.

Melnick fears that the effectiveness of vaccines have made people complacent about immunization.

“Because of immunizations, we don’t see these diseases much,” Melnick said. “They don’t remember the iron lung for people with polio.”

But not vaccinating puts the county at risk for outbreaks of diseases that should have been eliminated years ago, he said.

“These are diseases that kill children,” Melnick added. “The best thing people can do to protect their kids against these diseases is to get them immunized.”


Information from: The Columbian, http://www.columbian.com