Sep 5, 2023 - Education

School vaccine exemptions are declining in Washington state

Includes both medical and non-medical exemptions; Data: CDC; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

A smaller percentage of Washington kindergartners are receiving exemptions from required vaccines than a decade ago, public health data shows.

  • The decline in Washington comes as many states are seeing their exemption rates tick upward.

By the numbers: In the school year ending in 2022, 3.7% of kindergartners across Washington were granted exemptions to required vaccines, according to CDC data.

  • That's down from 4.7% in the 2011-2012 school year.

The big picture: Nationwide, the rate of kindergartners receiving exemptions from vaccine requirements rose from 1.4% in 2012 to 2.7% in 2022, per the CDC.

Why it matters: Vaccinations reduce the spread of childhood illnesses — some potentially fatal — that once plagued the country, such as polio, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick and Kavya Beheraj report.

  • While children are generally required to get a number of vaccinations before attending public school, exemptions can be given for both medical and non-medical reasons, such as religious objections.
  • Studies have found an increased risk of infection from vaccine-preventable diseases among exempt children.

Zoom in: One factor that appears to be driving down Washington's vaccine exemption rate is a new law passed in 2019, which eliminated the option of receiving a philosophical or personal exemption from the measles vaccine.

  • That law was passed following two measles outbreaks in 2019 that infected more than 80 people, the majority of whom were unvaccinated.
  • While children in Washington can still receive an exemption from the measles vaccine for medical or religious reasons, University of Washington researchers found that measles vaccination rates improved in Washington after the law was passed.

What they're saying: Public health officials in Washington say they've also tried to boost vaccination rates in other ways, such as through media campaigns, offering free vaccines for children, and requiring vaccines for preschool and child care programs in addition to kindergarten.

  • "We want every family to choose vaccination if it's possible for them to do so because it keeps their child safe," Danielle Koenig with the state Department of Health wrote in an email to Axios.
  • The more kids who are vaccinated, Koenig added, "the better bubble of protection we put around those who cannot be vaccinated or are otherwise vulnerable to these diseases."
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