Oregon leads the nation in the percentage of kids entering kindergarten with non-medical waivers for one or more vaccinations. State health officials hope a law taking effect March 1 changes that by requiring parents to get the facts before opting out.
Following the lead of Washington and California, Oregon is requiring parents to consult their family doctor or other health professional to qualify for a waiver of any of the vaccines against a dozen diseases required before their kids can enter school come September.
Oregon also offers an online alternative of watching a one-hour video that lays out the scientific evidence on the risks and benefits of immunization.
“We want to make sure parents and guardians receive science-based information about the benefits and risks of vaccine,” said Stacy de Assis Matthews, school law coordinator for the state Public Health Division. “There is a lot of misinformation out there on the internet.”
Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, is a family physician and sponsor of the law. She said the idea is that once people hear the science, rather than the myths, they will be less likely to say no.
Since a similar law went into effect in Washington in 2011, the rate of waivers for kids entering kindergarten has dropped 27 percent.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that 6.4 percent of kids entering kindergarten in Oregon for the 2012-2013 school year had a religious or philosophical exemption, amounting to 3,010 kids. The rate was tops in the nation and up from 5.9 percent the year before.
Nationally, the rate is 1.8 percent, and holding pretty steady for years, said Shannon Stokley, associate director for science in the CDC’s Immunization Services Division.
“People who tend to claim exemptions cluster geographically,” she said. “People may be influenced by friends, or what they read on the Internet, what they see on the news.
“We know the physician recommendation is one of the most important things that influences a parent’s decision on vaccinating a child.”
Just why Oregon ranks so high is hard to decipher.
Josephine County, where the exemption rate is 13.5 percent, has high unemployment, a low number of doctors and a below-average number of residents who attended college. In Marion County, home to the state capital, the exemption rate is 4.0 percent. The number of doctors is also low, but the unemployment rate is lower than Josephine’s, and fewer people have attended college.
Ashland resident Jennifer Margulis has four kids, and is the author of the book, “The Business of Baby,” which questions many common medical practices for children. She thinks the parents getting waivers are the ones who spend a lot of time educating themselves about what is best for their kids.
She does not object to vaccines in general, but has withheld some from her kids, particularly when they were babies.
“I think education and communication between health care officials and parents is always a good thing,” she said. “But I am concerned that this law, instead of promoting good communication, is more about an underhanded way to coerce people into vaccinating.”