Declining Immunization Rates Pose Growing Health Concerns

The percentage of unvaccinated school-age children in Washington has climbed to 6.2 percent, or one in 20 kindergarten students, posing a significant health risk.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, has reached epidemic levels this year in Washington state, an example of the danger caused by opting out or underimmunizing children.

According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Washington state has the highest rate of unvaccinated children in the U.S.

The success of vaccines in the last 30 years has caused people to forget the dangers of opting out of immunizations, says Martin Cieri, MD, a pediatrician with the Franciscan Medical Group.

The decision to not immunize children presents major health risks, notes Dr. Cieri, who specializes in Pediatric Infectious Disease at St. Joseph Medical Clinic, adding that the risk extends beyond the individual to the community at large.

Those health risks include lower immunity throughout the entire U.S. population, an increasing number of infectious disease cases each year and a weakening of a community’s herd immunity.

Herd immunity is an important concept to consider when explaining why vaccines keep entire communities healthier. Immunizations stop or slow the spread of infectious diseases in communities by lowering the number of people who could host the diseases, Dr. Cieri adds. Without hosts, the diseases can’t spread and the entire herd is protected.

Misinformation about vaccines is a leading reason mothers are deciding to not have their children immunized, he noted.

“Mothers want to make the best decisions to protect their children,” Dr. Cieri says. “They talk with their friends and share experiences in order to make many of their parenting choices, but the information they get isn’t always correct.”

It is important to see a primary care physician to talk about immunizations and find out the facts before making the decision to opt out of any immunization.

“The risk of death and illness from preventable diseases is greater than the risk of side effects from vaccines,” Dr. Cieri says. “There are no vaccines that a parent should opt out of because the diseases we vaccinate against have the potential to cause death.”