Ventura County STAR

Local kindergarten vaccinations hit new high

April 15, 2017

By Tom Kisken

Pushed by a new law and fear spread by measles and other diseases once considered nearly eliminated, kindergarten vaccination rates for the current school year reached recent 96 percent in Ventura County and California, the highest in at least 16 years.

According to data from the California Department of Public Health, 95.6 percent of the kindergartners received all required immunizations for diseases from whooping cough to polio, compared to 92.8 percent last year. In Ventura County, the vaccination rate was 96.1 percent, up from 94.2 percent a year ago.

The rates are records, according to comparable records that stretch to the 2001-2002 school year.

As recently as the 2013-14 school year, the kindergarten vaccination rate in Ventura County dipped to 88.6 percent and 90.2 percent across California. Some parents worried about connections between measles vaccinations and autism in claims health officials say have been repeatedly disproven.

"We were reaching a point where there was going to be a public health problem with some of these diseases coming back," said Dr. Ken Saul, a Thousand Oaks pediatrician who estimated about 20 percent of his patient families are wary of vaccines. "There was a definite increase in people not wanting to vaccinate."

Then came Disneyland. An outbreak linked to the amusement park brought 130 cases of measles to California in 2015, including 14 in Ventura County.

Amid red-hot debate over the need to up vaccination rates, state legislators passed a law in 2015 eliminating the personal-belief exemption that allowed parents to opt their kids out of vaccinations. The law kicked in last July.

Now, children entering kindergarten, and the seventh grade, have to show they've received all required vaccinations or are at least be on that path. Exemptions are offered only for medical reasons, like children with compromised immune systems.

The law is why vaccination rates climbed to new highs, said Tony Knight, superintendent for the Oak Park Unified School District.

"There are no excuses," he said. "They can't start school unless they've been vaccinated."

State officials pinned the rising rate on new laws and also awareness attributed to outbreaks of measles, mumps and other diseases. Recent examples include a measles outbreak first reported in December that brought at least 18 cases of the disease to Los Angeles County. Another five cases were reported in Ventura County.

As vaccinations rose across Ventura County and California so did the number of people receiving medical exemptions that allowed children to bypass the new law. About 77 kindergartners received exemptions this school year in Ventura County, nearly four times the 20 exemptions of a year ago.

Across the state, medical exemptions for kindergartners rose from 931 in 2015-16 to 2,850 in the current school year.

Some contend the number should be lower.

"There is still room for improvement," said Ventura County Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Levin, citing the county's vaccination rate of 96 percent. "If we only had exemptions based on sound, medical reasons, we'd probably be closer to 98 to 99 percent."

Still, the rising vaccination rates brought praise from many corners, with doctors citing the importance of herd immunity, meaning immunization levels high enough to protect those who can't be inoculated.

"That's great news," said Dr. Imelda De Forest, an Oxnard pediatrician. "The more vaccinated children there are, the healthier the population is. There will be less chances of outbreak of measles and vaccine-prevented disease."

Health officials in the past worried about individual schools and communities where vaccination rates have historically been lower, possibly driven by fears about vaccines. Statistics broken down for schools has not yet been released by the state for the current school year.

"It's too early to draw any conclusions," said Levin.

The new law brought more vaccinations but hasn't muted parents who worry about the impact of vaccinations, despite studies and assurances from federal, state and local health leaders.

"I do not think it's a good thing," Ventura midwife Sue Turner said of rising vaccination rates, noting that doctors told her more than 20 years ago her daughter was one of the rare cases in which measles was contracted from the vaccination.

"If all parents were to read the ingredients of each vaccine, they would hesitate," she said.

But the alleged link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism has been proved wrong, said Dr. Richard Pan, a pediatrician and the state senator who co-authored the bill that eliminated personal belief exemptions. The study suggesting a link and published in the journal The Lancet was retracted by the journal and labeled fraudulent by many, including Pan.

Doctors continue to debate how to deal with wary parents. Saul allows parents worried about immunizations to go slowly with their children, receiving two shots at a time. He worries an ultimatum would chase patients away before their children receive any immunizations.

Other doctors worry delays in giving shots could possibly open the door to disease.

"If you have the opportunity to prevent that risk," said De Forest, aiming her comments at parents, "why not take it. That's how I feel."