More kids in Washington state are getting their vaccines these days. Between 2003 and 2006, rates of Washington children younger than age 3 receiving their suggested full set of vaccinations rose 15 percent, climbing from 56.2 percent to 71.2 percent. And last March, the state received the nation’s “most improved state” award for boosting its vaccination rate.
Yet, when it comes to immunizations, Washington is still way down this list, ranking behind 38 states in the percentage of children younger than age 3 who are fully immunized.
Some of Washington’s children don’t receive their full schedule of vaccines by the time they begin school because they’re from low-income families with limited access to medical care or come from countries with low immunization rates.
And other children aren’t fully immunized because their parents question the whole standard vaccination process.
Lisa Power of Auburn is the mom of 1-year-old son Liam. Power would like Liam to skip his chicken pox vaccine, as her husband was able to in his native country of England. “My belief is that it would be better for my son to get chicken pox naturally, as a child rather than as an adult,” says Power.
Parents often choose to have their kids forgo vaccines because of health concerns or religious or philosophic objections. Some parents are convinced there’s a link between the mercury-based preservative thimerosal found in some vaccine stocks and autism.
Their position was reinforced recently by a historic concession from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. A panel of medical experts found that the autism of Atlanta’s 9-year-old Hannah Poling could have been triggered by the five vaccines she received in July 2000 during one visit to the doctor. The panel concluded that the vaccines made a rare disorder Poling already battled, called mitochondrial disorder, worse — and agreed that she should be paid from a federal vaccine-injury fund.
Washington is one of the few states where parents can sign a school form or write an affidavit that says they wish to opt out of some or all of the suggested vaccines for medical, philosophical or religious reasons.
Opting out can be risky
The number of Washington parents choosing not to have their children vaccinated alarms some medical professionals. Dr. Audrey Odom is a senior fellow in pediatric infectious diseases at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital. She says that unvaccinated children can potentially harm younger siblings.
Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is very dangerous to babies. “Very young babies less than 6 weeks old are at particular risk since pertussis makes them very sick, but they are too young to be vaccinated yet,” says Odom. “They are best protected by making sure everyone in the family is vaccinated.”
Odom thinks many Washington families decide against vaccines because “it’s so easy to opt out and still attend public schools.” In most other states, parents have to get their signature notarized, or have a religious leader co-sign, she says.
Parents who decline to vaccinate their kids put everyone at risk, says Odom. “Obviously, the more children in a state who haven’t received all their vaccines, the more risk to everyone of vaccine-preventable diseases.” She’s seen outbreaks of pertussis, measles and mumps. “Chicken pox [also called varicella] is still very common, with serious risks to children who have other health problems.”
Measles is particularly scary, Odom says, and remains a killer of children. “People aren’t afraid of measles, because they don’t see it anymore. But measles is highly infectious, and it is still all over the rest of the world, and it is only a plane flight away.”
Some doctors support parents who approach vaccines differently. Dr. Steven Hall’s family practice on Seattle’s Eastside combines both traditional and “alternative” medicine. While he accepts that some parents choose to vary the immunization schedule or skip certain vaccines, such as chicken pox, he believes there are some vaccines everyone should have, including tetanus. “Parents should consider the risk/benefit calculation of whether or not the condition can be treated if the child does contract it,” says Hall. “With Hepatitis B, 95 percent of people get better with no long-term problems. Five percent, however, get chronic active Hepatitis B, which eventually kills the liver.”
Laurelhurst author and mom Nan Mooney examined her vaccine choices carefully before the birth of her 6-month-old son, Leo, and concluded, “There is wisdom on both sides.” And she felt that she had to weigh the potential side effects of vaccines with her social responsibilities.
Mooney says The Vaccine Book by Dr. Robert Sears has been helpful. She’s following an alternative vaccination schedule based on the book, her own research and the guidance of her pediatrician. Leo will get one shot at a time instead of three or four. “If he has a reaction, we’ll know which one caused it.” And so far, says Mooney, “we’re really happy with the compromise we worked out.”
Kathleen F. Miller is a Sammamish-based freelance writer and mother of two.