More than 90 percent of children in Oklahoma enter public schools with up-to-date immunizations, but a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed an increase of parents seeking exemptions from vaccinations.
Oklahoma’s exemption rate increased by 0.3 percent between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, according to the CDC’s latest Kindergarten Survey, which was released in October.
While Oklahoma’s increase in exemptions followed a national trend, the state’s percentage of children entering school with their measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations lags behind the national average: 92.6 percent compared to 94.3 percent.
Lori Linstead, director of Immunization Service for the Oklahoma Department of Health, said research has demonstrated the benefits of vaccination.
“Of course we want adolescents to be vaccinated because research tells us that it protects people against vaccine-preventable diseases,” Linstead said.
Reasons for the increase in exemptions couldn’t be determined from the data, according to the CDC, but researchers included two possible factors: parental vaccine hesitancy and the ease with which parents can obtain an exemption.
In Oklahoma, parents can claim three possible categories of exemption: medical, religious or personal, according to the state Health Department. Only 17 other states accept personal exemptions, and all but three allow religious exemptions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
California, Mississippi and West Virginia allow only medical exemptions, according to their state health departments.
A medical contraindication requires parents to provide physician information and the condition that would endanger a child if he or she were given the vaccine in question.
A religious objection requires the submitter to certify that immunization is “contrary to the teachings” of the named religion. A personal objection asks for a summary of why the vaccine is “contrary to my beliefs,” according to the state’s certificate of exemption.
CDC data provided by the state Health Department showed that 2.1 percent of public school students and 5.6 percent of private school students had claimed at least one type of exemption, producing a combined estimated rate of 2.2 percent across Oklahoma.
In Tulsa County, 91.5 percent of public and private kindergartners were up to date with all their vaccines, according to the Health Department. The county reported that 2.8 percent had at least one exemption.
Counties with the highest exemption percentages were Dewey at 4.7, Woodward at 3.9, Coal at 3.8 and Wagoner at 3.5.
This was the first time the Kindergarten Survey provided a statistical breakdown by county, according to the state Health Department. Tillman County was the only one to report a 100 percent immunization rate. Eighteen counties reported no immunization exemptions.
“While our immunization efforts statewide are commendable, it is obvious that we still have work to do to reach the nationwide target of 95 percent coverage for (measles, mumps and rubella),” Dr. Kristy Bradley, state epidemiologist said in a release. “Unless we can assure that children entering school are protected through immunization, we are continuing to be at the risk of outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases.”
Health officials determine a target vaccination percentage based on herd immunity, the concept that one unvaccinated individual will be protected if surrounded by those who have been immunized. Oklahoma’s 92.6 percent of children with vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella falls a few points below the rate for herd immunity, according to a previous Tulsa World story.
More private schools responded to the current survey than at any previous time, according to the CDC. Less than 85 percent of private school students entered last school year with all their vaccinations up to date.
About 89 percent of public schools and 52 percent of private schools submitted responses and data, resulting in representation from 91 percent of public school students and 59 percent of private school students — 48,000 in total.