Washington State’s Tighter Vaccine Requirements Could Help Suppress Future Epidemics

This past summer, Washington State experienced an outbreak of whooping cough — also known as pertussis — that the Centers for Disease Control determined to be the nation’s worst epidemic in 50 years, pointing to the need to increase vaccination efforts for children in the state. Although the CDC found that Washington had the nation’s lowest rate of vaccination among kindergarten students as recently as 2009, a new state law that tightens the requirements for vaccinations is successfully reversing this trend.

During the beginning of the whooping cough outbreak, Washington’s secretary of health pointed out that under-immunization in children could be helping to spur the rapid increase in pertussis cases. Fortunately, the Washington legislature changed the state law last year to make it more difficult to opt out of childhood vaccines, a tactic that is already having a positive impact on vaccination rates:

The share of kindergartners whose parents opted out of state immunization requirements more than doubled in the decade that ended in 2008, peaking at 7.6 percent in the 2008-9 school year, according to the state’s Health Department, raising alarm among public health experts. But last year, the Legislature adopted a law that makes it harder for parents to avoid getting their children vaccinated, by requiring them to get a doctor’s signature if they wish to do so. Since then, the opt-out rate has fallen fast, by a quarter, setting an example for other states with easy policies.

For despite efforts to educate the public on the risks of forgoing immunization, more parents are choosing not to have their children vaccinated, especially in states that make it easy to opt out, according to a study published on Thursday in The New England Journal of Medicine.

And while the rate of children whose parents claimed exemptions remains low — slightly over 2 percent of all kindergarten students in 2011, up from just over 1 percent in 2006 — the national increase is “concerning,” said Saad Omer, an assistant professor of global health at Emory University who led the study.

With new reports suggesting that the majority of schools in the United States are unprepared for a public health pandemic — despite the fact that outbreaks of infectious diseases disproportionately impact school-age children — preventative vaccinations for children could be an especially important contributor to suppressing widespread outbreaks in schools, like the spread of swine flu in 2009. As the case study of Washington demonstrates, state-level legislation that helps boost vaccination rates can play a role in protecting the public against potential future epidemics across the country. Nonetheless, some public figures like Donald Trump continue to espouse dangerous misinformation about vaccines to dissuade public support for the widely-accepted medical practice.