Jackson and Josephine county K-12 students rank among the least-vaccinated in Oregon, according to new immunization data from the Oregon Health Authority.
Both counties’ overall K-12 student comprehensive immunization rate in 2017-18 school year was 89 percent, the second-lowest in the state. Only Wallowa County, at 88 percent, had a lower rate.
Michael Weber, director of Josephine County Public Health, said he was not surprised by the new numbers.
“We’ve always struggled with immunization rates,” he said. Plus, he said, there’s been “a trend down across the state.”
What has trended upward in recent years is the rate of kindergarten-age children with nonmedical exemptions from some or all immunizations. The rate hit 7.5 percent in 2018, surpassing pre-2015 levels for the first time, after the state Legislature passed a law increasing requirements for nonmedical exemptions. The rates fell to 5.8 percent in 2016 but have increased since then.
Stacy de Assis Matthews, immunization school law coordinator with OHA’s Oregon Immunization Program, said she is “concerned about increase in nonmedical exemptions.”
“But still, the vast majority of parents are choosing to immunize their children for the health of their children and the health of their communities,” she said.
Scientific evidence suggests that communities, and particularly their members with compromised immune systems — such as the very old and very young — are most protected from communicable diseases through “herd immunity,” in which enough members are immune to prevent an outbreak. Epidemiologists set the herd immunity threshold for individual diseases, with target percentage levels often in the high 80s to high 90s.
Vaccines or previous infection are the only ways people become immune to diseases, though not every vaccinated or previously infected individual develops perfect immunity.
At the preschool and child care level locally, the percentages of fully vaccinated children were even lower than the K-12 rates — 71 percent in Josephine and 74 percent in Jackson. That’s true across the state, too, with lower rates in this age group.
Weber said he thinks the K-12 immunization requirements may convince parents to fully vaccinate their children, even if they were hesitant to do so when their children were younger.
Josephine County tied with Wallowa County for the third-lowest complete vaccination rate among children younger than kindergarten age.
De Assis Matthews said the county levels for this age group come from data provided by preschools and certified child care centers with more than 10 students enrolled, coupled with another system that provides data for children who are not enrolled in either type of facility (which is about two-thirds of that age group).
Per Oregon statute, OHA also released data on individual schools, found at https://bit.ly/2ju5dji.
Among K-12 schools, Ashland’s Siskiyou School has the lowest complete immunization rate in Jackson County, with 29 percent of the 189 students having received all required vaccinations. All of the exemptions were for nonmedical reasons.
A call to the school for comment was not returned.
Every K-12 school, preschool or child care center in Ashland is considered “more” or “most vulnerable” by the OHA.
Ashland has drawn international attention for having a high rate of nonmedical exemptions and playing host to several events for opponents of vaccines.
Medford School District largely avoided the “more” or “most vulnerable” designations. Two charter schools, Madrone Trail and Logos, along with Ruch School in the Applegate Valley, registered in the “most vulnerable” category. Aside from those three, the remainder of the district’s schools were listed as “safest” or “moderately vulnerable.”
In Josephine County, Weber said, his department is planning on more outreach to increase awareness of the scientific consensus on vaccine safety. That could take shape in the form of a town hall, he said.
As health care providers or professionals, he said, “we see so much data, and it’s really easy to see what we view as obvious answers to some of these questions. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that parents aren’t in those same positions.”
Generally, he said, resistance to vaccinations decreases through concentrated educational efforts or through outbreaks of communicable disease, which “forces the hand of legislators to solve.
“We’d rather not see that,” he said.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.